Will SHR's Other Drivers Start Catching Up to Kevin Harvick at Bristol?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2014

Drivers from Stewart-Haas racing, from left, Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, pose for a photo during a news conference at the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto racing Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Even though he dropped 10 places in the standings after Las Vegas—from fourth to 14th—Kevin Harvick remains the early-season star for the otherwise struggling Stewart-Haas Racing stable.

Harvick has finished 13th (Daytona), first (Phoenix) and 41st (Las Vegas) as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.

So where are the rest of Harvick's SHR compadres?

Answer: They're not doing all too well, individually or collectively.

After finishes of 35th, 16th and 33rd in the first three races, SHR co-owner Tony Stewart is wallowing in 27th place in the overall series standings.

Teammate Kurt Busch is right behind Stewart, 28th in the points following finishes of 21st, 39th and 26th.

And if Smoke and KuBu don't break their string of bad luck this weekend, teammate Danica Patrick may even pass them up. Patrick improved six spots in the rankings after this past Sunday's race at Las Vegas, ranking her 33rd heading into Bristol.

Patrick has had the hardest time of all the SHR drivers in 2014, finishing 40th at Daytona, 36th at Phoenix and 21st at Vegas.

Still, she's at least showing upward progress, which isn't exactly the same thing Stewart and Busch can say right now.

As much as I hate to say it, Stewart's rough start will likely continue this Sunday. Busch, on the other hand, appears ready to break out of the funk he's been in—if past performance at the half-mile eastern Tennessee bullring is any indication.

Let's look at the numbers.

First the good. Busch has the best overall performance of all SHR drivers at Bristol. Granted, he's in his first season with his new team, but the BMS is one of the elder Busch brother's most successful tracks.

In 26 starts, Busch has a 14.0 finishing average. That's outstanding, considering Bristol's reputation for being a demolition derby track. Busch has five wins, seven top-five and 14 top-10 showings there.

The odds are strongly in his favor that he gets a top-15 or maybe even top-10—provided he avoids the usual banging, beating and wrecking carnage.

Now the bad news: Stewart is the exact opposite of Busch.

In fact, BMS is Stewart's second-worst track on the circuit. That even surprised me when I started researching this story, but as they say, the facts are the facts.

Stewart makes his 30th career Cup start at Bristol on Sunday. His average finish is 18.1, based upon just one win, eight top-five and no other top-10 finishes.

If you're a Stewart fan, you might want to start looking past Bristol and ahead to Fontana the following week. He does significantly better there.

Patrick is still learning the nuances of Bristol. In three previous Cup starts there, her average finish is 27.7—not overly remarkable considering she's finished 29th, 28th and 26th in those first three attempts there.

And then there's Harvick. He'll make his 27th career Cup start at BMS, where his average finish is 13.4 (with one win, nine top-five and 12 top-10 showings).

Let's look at the bottom line heading into Sunday's race.

Harvick is 50 points behind Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. That's a little more than one full race worth of points.

But then comes the sense of urgency for SHR, even if we are only three races into the grueling 36-race schedule.

Stewart is 85 points behind Earnhardt, while Busch is 86. That means the two former Sprint Cup champs are now mathematically two full races points-wise behind Earnhardt. Even with it being this early in the season, neither can afford to lose any more ground. For with each passing race that they languish so far behind Earnhardt, the odds start turning against them that they'll be able to close the gap.

Patrick, meanwhile, is 97 points behind Earnhardt.

All in all, three of the four SHR drivers are already having difficulty trying to catch their own teammate, Harvick, let alone Earnhardt.

What was looked upon as potentially being a great year overall for SHR certainly hasn't started off that way for the most part (with the exception of Harvick).

Thankfully, there's still time to turn things around. Stewart is a notorious first-half driver, a guy who has almost made it a career trademark to not really get started until just before the midpoint of most seasons.

Busch is a momentum driver. One good run typically turns into two or more in a row. If he can string together a few good runs in the coming races, he should vault upward in the standings fairly quickly.

And as for Patrick, she could be the most fortunate of all because expectations placed upon her coming into the season are nowhere near as high as her teammates.

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