When Gene Haas first began operating a Sprint Car team full-time in 2003, it’s fair to say the results weren’t what he expected.
Frankly, Haas/CNC Racing was a virtual non-entity. From 2003 through 2008, no full-time Haas/CNC driver finished higher in the standings than 28th place (Mike Bliss 2005, Jeff Green 2006).
But once Haas lured NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart to the team in 2009—and Stewart brought fellow Hoosier Ryan Newman with him—the newly renamed Stewart-Haas Racing needed just three seasons to win a Sprint Cup championship with Stewart behind the wheel in 2011.
And now, with Kevin Harvick winning his first career Cup championship this past Sunday, SHR has earned a second title in four seasons.
Other than Hendrick Motorsports having won six of the previous eight titles with Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel, the last time one organization won titles outright was Roush Fenway Racing (Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004).
Or, you could count Joe Gibbs Racing (Tony Stewart in 2002 and 2005). Penske Racing, meanwhile, won its first-ever Sprint Cup championship in 2012 but has long been considered among the more elite organizations in the sport.
But even with Stewart’s third championship win in 2011 under the SHR banner—the closest championship finish in NASCAR history (one point, with Stewart beating Carl Edwards by a tiebreaker of more wins)—SHR has not been looked upon as elite team.
Consider 2012: Stewart finished ninth, Newman 12th.
Then there was 2013, when Stewart missed the last 15 races after suffering a severe leg injury in a sprint car race. Newman was the lone SHR representative in the Chase and finished 11th, while Danica Patrick, in her first full-time season in Sprint Cup, finished a distant 27th.
Most people would likely not consider those finishes indicative of an elite team.
Then came 2014.
While Harvick won the championship in his first season after leaving Richard Childress Racing, the rest of the SHR stable was mediocre to poor.
Fellow SHR newcomer Kurt Busch made the Chase but finished 12th, Stewart was 25th and Patrick actually dipped one spot lower than her first season, finishing 28th.
Does Harvick’s championship finally make SHR an elite team, worthy of being considered in the same breath as organizations such as Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske?
Frankly, it’s too early to tell.
Sure, what Harvick did is a great accomplishment, no doubt. After chasing a title for 13 seasons with RCR, he risked a lot to move to a different team, especially one that was coming off a dismal campaign in 2013.
Granted, SHR buys or leases its chassis and motors from Hendrick Motorsports. By default, the four SHR teams are satellite HMS teams, receiving considerable technical support from the parent organization.
Think of SHR as HMS Lite.
But at the same time, Harvick’s championship, coupled with a return to prominence by Stewart and a better overall year by Busch in 2015, could very well make SHR be considered a dominant team.
However, in my opinion, the only way SHR will ever reach elite status is —if it starts building its own chassis and motors and not rely upon a turnkey operation with the Hendrick camp.
The question is, why would SHR mess with success to do that? If the model it currently has with HMS motors, car bodies, etc., isn’t broken, why try to fix it?
If anything, we may see more interaction between teams. It would be natural for Michael Waltrip Racing to pair with JGR and produce the best Toyota cars and motors together, rather than separately as they currently do.
Ditto for Roush Fenway Racing and its affiliation with Richard Petty Motorsports and Wood Brothers Racing.
Instead of going separate ways and doing things on their own, even if they drive the same type of manufacturer’s car, there’s a lesson to be learned from the SHR-HMS alliance.
Namely, one for all and all for one.
With the costs of NASCAR racing being nearly out of reach for individual teams, it makes sense to follow a model where teams work together under the same manufacturing banner and produce the same chassis and motors together.
And most importantly, save money together.
The days of teams doing everything on their own are quickly fading. And while some may feel the strong—like HMS—only get stronger with satellite teams, is there anything really wrong with that?
Harvick and Stewart won championships within four seasons of each other and for the same team. Sure, they got help with car bodies and motors, but it was the drivers who ultimately won the championship.
If Stewart, Harvick, Busch or Patrick wins the championship, yes, SHR will have finally earned its way into the group of elite teams in NASCAR.
And if they did so with a little help from their friends (at HMS), so what?
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski