Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart delivered one of his best results of the year this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, and in doing do provided his team with a much needed ray of sunshine after what had otherwise proved to be a difficult day the office.
Stewart gambled on staying out on track during the final caution in Sunday's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500, while the majority of other drivers came in and took on fresh tyres. That gave Stewart the edge in track position as he led the field to the final green flag of the day for a five-lap sprint finish at the half-mile oval, but it meant that he was left with less grip than those who had come in for fresh rubber.
"I don't think it was a gamble by any means," Stewart insisted. "I think if we were in that position 100 times over that is same call we would do. It felt like it was the right thing for this team.
"Running fifth there or fourth there I guess before the caution, I felt like it was the right call for sure," he continued. "I thought we gave ourselves the best shot to race for the win. I don't think if we would have restarted fifth of the guys that pitted we could have raced through those guys to get where we were. If three or four more lead lap cars stayed out and gambled like we did it may have put enough cars in between us to make it pay off. I thought the risk versus reward was worth it for sure."
In the end there was nothing that Stewart could do about Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman forcing their way past, but he was able to hold on to fourth place compared with David Ragan who had also stayed out but who ended up being bundled down to tenth place by the line; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost even more places and finished in 15th.
The fourth place equals Stewart's previous best result of the season which came in the sprint race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the fourth event of the year. It's the first time that Stewart has finished in the top ten since he took three races off following his involvement in a fatal accident in a regional dirt track race in New York state in August, for which the three-time Cup champion has since been cleared of any culpability following an investigation by local law enforcement.
But while fourth place means that the skies over Stewart himself might finally be clearing, the outlook was gloomy for the rest of the SHR line-up. The team's sole representative still in the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Kevin Harvick, suffered a major setback to his hopes of making it to the winner-take-all race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16 when a collision with Matt Kenseth left him finishing in 33rd place.
Kurt Busch had already been eliminated from the Chase after the first round concluded at Dover International Speedway at the end of September, but he was still looking strong to pick up a back-to-back win at Martinsville this weekend, leading for 21 laps during the race before an oil line failure on lap 424 derailed his chance at a season sweep at the Paperclip.
"I think we ruptured an oil line,” said Busch, after his crew opened up the hood to check the source of some smoke and found a full-blown fire in progress. “Whether it was the fitting or the line itself, I don't know. But we had a really good run. We were in the mix. We were running up front with the Haas Automation Chevy, and we were in that spot where we won that race this spring which meant 70 to go. If there was another yellow, we would have been okay. If we were going to run to the end, that was going to be the run."
Sunday's race was the last with his current car crew and with crew chief Daniel Knost, who has been working with the driver ever since Busch moved to SHR at the start of the year. Knost and his team are being swapped to Danica Patrick's car, with Busch getting in turn the assistance of Tony Gibson and his crew with effect from next week's race at Texas Motor Speedway.
"It's very sentimental,” Busch admitted. "This is the last race with Daniel Knost and these guys. We won here early in the year, and we wanted to build that consistency. Today you could feel exactly what we've built all year long. We just had one of those mechanical failures that pops up and bites you. But, thanks to all these guys on the #41 team and Stewart-Haas Racing for giving me this chance."
Over in the neighbouring garage, the day didn't end well for Danica Patrick either. She was running well in 16th place on lap 438 when a mechanical failure for Brad Keselowski resulted in the #2 Penske car wiping out a number of other cars including Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Casey Mears - and Patrick. The damage to the right front (sustained when the #10 clipped Mears in the mêlée) initially looked to be repairable, but shortly after it was clear that the #10 was done for the day and Patrick was forced to return to the team garage and retire.
"We had a good day going," said Patrick. "[We were] in the top 20 most of the day, and I think we could have had a top ten finish. I'm not sure what happened with the #2, but the #13 hit him and I hit the 1#3 with the right front of my car. We got back out, but we brought it to the garage so they could look it over, and we decided we were done. It's a shame because we had a really good car."
It wasn't the way that Patrick wanted to end her partnership with crew chief Tony Gibson, who has been with Patrick for 70 Cup races starting with the autumn race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012 almost exactly two years ago. Together, they've picked up four top ten finishes, including a career best result of sixth place at Atlanta this year. However the highpoint of their association remains the pole position they won together for the 2013 Daytona 500.
"Thanks to Tony Gibson and all his guys for a great two years," said Patrick. "They were great to work with ... But I'm very open-minded and I'm not scared of change. I definitely am one that believes that you can't know if something can be better unless you try it. I'm ready for the challenge and the change and the possibility of it being better than what it is."
“I think that's the right thing to do," said Gibson. "It's a little sad ... We've got two years invested with Danica and seeing some progress and things were moving forward. [But] I may fit Kurt better. You don't know until you try it," he added, echoing Patrick's own sentiments.
The thinking appears to be that the fiery Busch needs someone experienced, level-headed and dependable to get the best out of him. That's a profile that fits Gibson better than it does Knost, who is a first-year crew chief with a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering described by Stewart-Haas Racing vice president of racing Greg Zipadelli as "young, aggressive, very smart" - but crucially lacking hands-on experience.
"This year, I felt like I wore a mentor hat or wore a hat of helping the crew chief understand the pitfalls he was going to experience," admitted Busch. "I enjoyed it. I was hoping to build a consistency [but] that's what we didn't get done.
"Winning a race and getting in the Chase isn't what the #41 car is here to do," he pointed out. "It's to be competitive week-in and week-out and have shots at winning. The year has been a success. There's certain areas we can look at that we did what we wanted to and there's certain areas that we looked at that we know we can do a better job."
Talking of his new crew chief Tony Gibson, Busch said: "There won't be a question of respect or lack of confidence because I know he has been around to do it and know exactly what has to happen at each type of track."
Meanwhile the change should be good for Patrick as well, according to Zipadelli, who said that Knost's technical background would be a better fit with the former IndyCar driver. Knost has worked with Patrick before and was the engineer for her first 10 Sprint Cup races in 2012.
"She came from IndyCar, that is what they had," Zipadelli explained. "They dealt with a lot of engineers and the way they do things is a little different than the old-school racer does things. She wants to know more about what they are doing and the comparisons and this and that and just trying to learn at the same time.
"She has made a ton of progress. Her speed on the racetrack, her qualifying is better, but our race finishes aren't. That is really what counts. So how do we help and encourage that? Right now, I just think that for where we are at this is a pretty good change."
Certainly the new set-up for Busch and Patrick can only improve their race days compared with the unfortunate outcomes both drivers experiences this weekend at Martinsville Speedway this weekend.
"I think that everybody is looking for some magic and a relationship that takes you to the next level," said Patrick. "Just having something I haven't really had in NASCAR yet."
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