By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Friday was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” for all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers after going through the ropes with NASCAR’s latest qualifying format. Fast forward to Sunday, all four drivers delivered stellar results in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth, but each had an adventurous day that became one fascinating tale to the next.
Out of the four SHR drivers, Clint Bowyer stole Friday’s headlines after letting out his raw emotions about the latest system after Ryan Newman clogged up the pit lane while trying to make a qualifying lap earlier and had to start 25th.
Bowyer had a strong turnaround and worked his way up to the top-10 deep in the opening stage, and kept building on his momentum and would later hang around the top-five leaderboard when it mattered most, and led the SHR parade in terms of consistency.
Although his No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Ford Mustang didn’t matched the speed of race winner Denny Hamlin, but his car handling was solid enough to bring it home in second, a season-high for the Emporia, Kansas native.
In typical Bowyer fashion, he stated that his runner-up finish unclogged any remaining feelings he had from Friday’s epic failure.
“We definitely unclogged ourselves from qualifying (laughing),” said Bowyer. “All in all, our car handled good. It wasn’t lightning fast all day long, but as they started slip sliding around and struggling we’d kind of prevail on those long runs. That was our M.O. Denny, he was relatively fast all weekend long – top of the sheet – so we just weren’t really. All in all, I’m really happy to finish where we were.”
Bowyer added that the different pit strategies all afternoon through him off guard, including the last stop where both he and Hamlin opted to go for fuel only in the closing laps, but a faster pit stop by Hamlin left Bowyer in a situation as to what could’ve been done differently that would’ve seen him go from just finishing second to get his first win since Michigan last June.
“What a wild race. Just about the time you think you’re gonna have some stage points the caution would come out and then you thought you were back in and it happened again,” said Bowyer. “Then you’re like, ‘Well, damn. What kind of haymakers are gonna be thrown at the end,’ and it just didn’t. Anytime you finish second it’s like, ‘What could I have done?’ When he came out of the pits that far ahead of us I was like, ‘We’re in big trouble,’ but second is not bad for the way our weekend started.”
After starting fourth, Daniel Suarez proved to be the class of the SHR quartet, with some believing that he might’ve had a shot of winning in just his seventh start with the team. Suarez led twice for nine of 334 laps, validating that his No. 41 Ruckus Ford Mustang was a legit top-five contending car and that running solo on Friday showcased what he’s capable of doing with another top-tier team.
While his maiden win came up short after finishing third for his fifth career top-five finish, Suarez was really satisfied with his weekend performance.
“I’m happy. The entire weekend was strong for us. We had the speed all weekend long,” said Suarez. “I feel like we had for sure a top five car and at times probably the best car out there on the long run. We were just trying to find the right balance back and forth, but I’m just very proud of everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford Performance, and especially from the 41 guys. They worked extremely hard to bring a good piece for Texas and we did it, so I’m grateful.”
While Bowyer and Suarez were pretty satisfied with their top-five finishes, the same can’t be said for seventh and eighth place finishers Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick.
For Almirola, he had a battle of his own – illness. Without a driver on standby, it meant the 21st-place starter had to fight it out for 334 laps and make the most out of the afternoon, which he was able to do without any signs of slowing down. Almirola would lead three laps in the afternoon and extended his top-ten streak now to six, which moved him up from sixth to fifth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings.
Once he got out of his No. 10 Smithfield Prime Fresh Ford Mustang, the effects of running the full distance came in and it’s all he thought of when reflecting on scoring another valiant result.
“I’m tired. It was a long night last night. I didn’t sleep at all, throwing up with a stomach bug, so I’m really, really depleted. I haven’t been able to keep anything down, so I’m just really hungry and I’m really tired,” said Almirola. “We don’t get to call in sick. That’s the challenging part of our job occasionally. The flu or a cold or a stomach bug pops up and you’ve got to fight through it.
“I’m really proud of everybody. We had a good car and track position there and strategy and pit stops and stuff and we still got out of here with a top 10, so that’s six in a row. I’m proud of that.”
Harvick on the other hand struggled for much of the race to even get in the top-10 without green flag pit stops playing a role and nowhere near in racing-winning contention like he was last fall. Not only he was the only SHR driver failing to lead a lap, which marked his fourth straight race without his No. 4 Mobil 1/O’Reilly Auto Parts Ford Mustang leading, but he had to overcome a pit road penalty due to an uncontrolled tire.
This left Harvick even more angry and while he did extended his top-10 streak to six, it was the least of his concerns as he was critical of both Goodyear and his team for not being competitive for wins all season.
“Our day was a disaster,” said Harvick. “Our car drove terrible and that pretty much sums it up. The tires suck every week. We haven’t been close to a race-winning car in a race yet.”
After a chaotic weekend at “The Lone Star State,” the team will head to “Thunder Valley” and hope to capture that elusive first win of the season in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, which the No. 41 car (then driven by Kurt Busch) won the latest race at “The Last Great Colosseum” last August.