BRISTOL, Tenn. — There is no panic at Stewart-Haas Racing despite a sub-par start to the season that is tarnishing Tony Stewart’s comeback from a broken leg.
Stewart needed a provisional to make today’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he’s scheduled to start 37th after an awful qualifying session for the four-car organization. Danica Patrick, who wrecked three minutes into Friday’s first practice, was the last car to qualify on speed at 36th. Kevin Harvick, the lone bright spot for the organization this season, qualified 27th, and Kurt Busch had the best effort for SHR at 13th.
It’s just been that kind of start for SHR, which is trying to figure out how to get all its cars running equally just months after replacing Ryan Newman with Harvick and adding Busch to become a four-car organization.
"Everywhere we go, we’ve got two cars that run pretty good. We haven’t gotten a weekend where everybody’s run great," vice-president of competition Greg Zipadelli said Saturday. "It’s hard to have four cars. I think you can get four cars running good, but it’s harder to get them to all finish good."
The most glaring problems have been with Stewart, who returned Feb. 14 after missing the final 15 races last season with a broken right leg suffered in a sprint car crash at Iowa. His first time back in his No. 14 Chevrolet was a day before the first exhibition race at Daytona, and his race was cut short when he was caught in a multi-car accident.
Engine problems ruined the Daytona 500 for him, he was a mediocre 16th at Phoenix, and Stewart struggled with an awful car at Las Vegas last week and finished 33rd.
"He hasn’t complained about his leg. His attitude, his effort, his spirits have been great," Zipadelli said. "We’re just not giving him what he’s comfortable with. We’re dragging the racetrack. It’s not little things. It’s way off. Last week was a human error. He did an amazing job driving that car. I went down in the corner and watched it and most people would have wrecked that thing. We got it home and found some mechanical and human error. Shame on us. That stuff can’t happen at this level. It certainly shouldn’t happen to that calibre of driver. We owe him a lot more than that."
But Zipadelli insisted the temperamental Stewart has remained calm while trying to be part of the solution. Because Stewart was not cleared to drive until mid-February, he missed out on all preseason testing and wasn’t able to work with new crew chief Chad Johnston until the start of Speedweeks. Zipadelli said the No. 14 team has a heavy upcoming test schedule and Stewart will be the driver.
"He’s got all the right in the world to be screaming and calling them everything he wants because we have not done a good job for him this year, as far as this group," Zipadelli said. "But he has been more of a leader and trying to motivate and keep everyone in the game."
It’s up to Johnston, though, to keep Stewart placated.
Johnston, who joined SHR in December from Michael Waltrip Racing, is Stewart’s third crew chief since he left Zipadelli and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009. Stewart and Zipadelli were together for 10 seasons and two championships, but he failed to find the same chemistry with Darian Grubb and Steve Addington and is now a month into Johnston.
"It’s a no-win situation unless you win with Tony. Let’s face it. If it’s not, if your cars are not good enough, or if he’s not running up front every week leading laps, well then it’s your fault. I battled it for 10 years," Zipadelli said, adding that Johnston is "doing a good job. As a group, I feel they are closer as a group. They are working better together, their communication is better.
"It seems every week they start a little bit behind in trying to figure out what he wants. I feel like the group we have will do a really good job once we find that platform Tony wants."
— The Associated Press