With Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing is emerging as the premier team in MENCS

By Kyle McFadden

May 7, 2018

DOVER, Del.—Two years ago, when Tony Stewart and Gene Haas announced they were leaving Chevrolet for Ford, it uncorked sour opinions and triggered a whirlwind of confusion.

How could Stewart, a Chevy enthusiast, jump ships for a manufacturer that hasn’t won it all since 2004? And loyalty aside, why move on from a brand that helped you win two personal Cup Series championships (2005 and 2011) and another as an owner (Kevin Harvick, 2014)? A stretch that Chevy claimed nine of 10 Cup Series titles (2005-11, 2013-15).

“It’s what is best for our company going forward,” Stewart declared in the revealing press conference in 2016. “I understand there are people that are gonna be upset about it, but … this is what we felt like was best. And as a business owner, you can’t overlook great opportunities.”

While those words seemed head-scratching in the early weeks of 2016, Stewart’s vision has blossomed into a sweeping spectacle as 2018 creeps closer to the decisive summer months.

SHR torch-bearer Kevin Harvick romped the field in the AAA Drive for Autism 400 on Sunday afternoon at Dover International Speedway, leading 201 of the 400 laps and winning by 7.45 seconds in that No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford Fusion with, ironically enough, “Freaky Fast” streaked on both sides.

It marked Harvick’s fourth win of the young season and the fifth at SHR in 11 races (Clint Bowyer won at Martinsville in March). If you go back to last year, SHR has taken six of the last 14 races. Oh, and the unit put three drivers in the top five Sunday—Harvick, Bowyer (second; 40 laps led) and Kurt Busch (fifth)—with all three entering the top six in the season point standings.

If the first 10 races weren’t indicative enough, the message Sunday at the Monster Mile was clear: SHR’s butt-kicking ways are just getting started, and it’s time for the other stables, Chevy’s especially, to wake up.

“The partnership with Ford has been amazing so far,” Stewart said. “I don’t know that you really set a benchmark on where you want to be—the goal is just to go forward. But it’s hard to set a benchmark on where it’s going to go. From an ownership side, days like today are what you dream of.

“To have three drivers in the top five and to have the start to the season that we’ve had, the partnership with Ford has been amazing so far, and the support we’ve been given and their dedication to what they want the results to be. It definitely shows.”

I’d be damned if it doesn’t show. The race Sunday could’ve gone 400 more miles and it’d still be Harvick-Bowyer 1-2.

“Everybody is just so detailed oriented right now,” Harvick said. “I feel like we’re playoff racing on a weekly basis.”

In SHR’s first year under Ford in 2017, it put just two cars in the playoffs and won only three races. But the inaugural season squeezed out most of the kinks and laid the groundwork for this upstart stretch.

“I think the biggest thing is having a year under our belt to work with Ford. To get our tools better, to get our cars better, to understand the aero side of it more,” Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers said after the win Sunday.

“I feel like a lot of that is just confidence. You have confidence in the cars and tools and everything going on. I think the biggest thing is all the cylinders are clicking right now.”

Even though Stewart swore the move to Ford had nothing to do with Chevy, it’s hard to buy that he didn’t sense this drastic shift in production coming two years ago. Chevy simply doesn’t have sheer speed to run down the SHR Fords -- and just Fords in general. The new Camaro is probably throwing teams like Childress, Ganassi, and Hendrick a loop, but at the end of the day, the output is shockingly wayward.

Not even seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson can figure it out. After an inauspicious ninth-place finish at his favorite track on the circuit, Johnson remains mired in uncertainty and 12th in the standings. Larson, a Championship Four contender last year, is the highest Chevy driver in the standings in 10th.

Ford, meanwhile, occupies seven of the top 11 spots. Kyle Busch will always do Kyle Busch things, like sitting first in the standings with three wins thus far. And Martin Truex Jr. is racing somewhat like his championship self from last year to sit ninth with one win and six top fives.

But at the moment, Ford is in a league of its own.

“Yeah, they are, I’d say they are,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones; all Toyotas.

Now disciples of Gibbs are emerging as the sport’s premier race team. Stewart, a two-time champion for Gibbs, is a partial owner of SHR. Greg Zipadelli, a crew chief for JGR from 1999-2011, is SHR’s competition director.

Another influential figure is Tony Gibson, a long-time crew chief who’s guided drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. After 31 years on the road, Gibson is now SHR’s production manager and oversees all four race teams back at the shop.

“You really need somebody of his caliber on the floor to tie us all together,” Stewart said. “That’s really what we’ve seen here, having all four of these teams together at the shop, and watching over everything and making sure we’re staying the course. It’s easy when you have four crew chiefs and four engineers to go four different directions if you’re not careful. I think that’s something Tony’s good at, is tying it all together.

“It’s the same philosophy I drove under when we were at Gibbs: We were one unit at the shop, then we went to the racetrack, we were separate race teams, but we still worked together.”

It’s been 13 full seasons since the last time Ford won a title at the premier level, back when NASCAR just moved out of the Winston Cup days. Facebook had just become a thing and I was only 8-years-old.

If Harvick and SHR can continue their rapid trajectory (Harvick is on pace for 13 wins, 26 top fives, and 30 top 10s), then Ford will return to prominence. And the blueprint to sustaining it isn’t changing in the slightest.

“The biggest thing, we haven’t went back and talked about the races we’ve won,” Childers said, “we go back and talk about how to get better.”


Austin McFadden/TRE