By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It was a banner day for Stewart-Haas Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday as three out of its four cars finished in the top-five with Kevin Harvick scoring his third Brickyard 400 victory.
Aric Almirola crossed the line in third while Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Cole Custer finished a career-high fifth.
SHR’s trio survived the 161-lap madness Indy provided as tire issues eliminated several top contenders, including Denny Hamlin who was leading with 8 to go. When the dust finally settled, it was Harvick shining the brightest as he beat Matt Kenseth to score a series equal fourth win of 2020.
Harvick and his entire No. 4 Busch Ford Mustang crew climbed the fence and kissed the bricks to cap off a NASCAR sweep as Chase Briscoe won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the road course. Sunday’s triumph also marked Harvick’s 53rd win of his legendary NASCAR Cup Series career.
“This is what I grew up wanting to do as a kid, win at the Brickyard and to be able to come here and have won for the third time is something that I could have never dreamed of,” said Harvick. “I want to say hi to my family at home. I know Keelan will be jacked up. Piper is probably asleep. If not, hello. But just really, really proud of all these guys on this team.”
The road to victory wasn’t easy as it looked the 2014 Cup champion was on the losing end following his No. 4 Busch Ford Mustang crew having a lengthy left side tire change, resulting Hamlin to be ahead on Lap 124 until his day ended in a violent crash in Turn 1.
Harvick, who led 68 laps, had sympathy from Hamlin as he knew that he wanted to beat him fair and square instead of unfortunate circumstances like tire wear dictating the outcome.
“They told me that he was really close on tire wear and our tire wear was good,” Harvick on Hamlin’s exit. “They wanted us to push as hard as we could and the pace picked up as it got cooler, so you hate to see people have trouble. I’m just glad he’s okay.”
After 16 races, Harvick leads the regular season championship standings by 85 over Chase Elliott and now 109 markers over Hamlin, who sits fifth.
Two spots behind Harvick was Almirola, who overcame tire problems that put him a lap down to score a brilliant third place finish for the third time this season and a fifth straight top-five finish.
When Almirola was asked if he felt a rally was possible, he didn’t felt that way considering how tough the tires were on his competitors where the left front kept coming apart every 20-25 laps, impacting the team’s race strategy all afternoon.
That’s where crew chief Mike Bugarewicz and his No. 10 team came into the picture as they were able to improve the car and the results have shown their growth once again.
“We had such a fast race car and we kept getting behind the eight-ball because we kept having to pit for vibrations, but so proud of Mike Bugarewicz and this whole race team. We’re bringing such fast Ford Mustangs to the racetrack,” said Almirola.
“Five top fives in a row. We’re so consistent and when you run that consistently in the top five we’ll win races.”
What stood out for Almirola was not the fact he’s scored the most top-fives in a single season, but having this positive upswing at tracks he’s not had the best results in the past.
“To be honest Buga and I were just talking. We just ran five top fives in a row at racetracks that are probably my worst racetracks statistically,” said Almirola. “We’re going to some racetracks that are really good for me — Kentucky, Loudon, Bristol for the All-Star Race, so I’m excited for these next stretch of races. This team has been on it.
“We’re doing such a good job of being consistent. We’re bringing great race cars and we’re being really consistent running up front, so just really proud of this team and just want to keep it going. It’s fun to run up front like that.”
Almirola remains ninth in points, but extends the playoff cutoff gap over Erik Jones, who also had a hard crash due to a tire failure in Turn 3, by 111 points.
Another two spots back is where you’ll find Custer. What has been a real underwhelming rookie season, he finally made a statement at the highest level of NASCAR with his first career top-five finish, a strong turnaround to what was a forgettable first two stages.
The 22-year-old also played a role in Harvick’s victory because on the final restart, Custer pushed him to clear Kenseth for the race lead in overtime. A win may have been out of reach, but Custer was able to hold off Kyle Busch to wrap up a superb weekend for SHR at the demanding 2.5-mile circuit.
“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy. It is Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us,” said Custer. “For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot.
“Thanks to all the guys at SHR for bringing great race cars. HaasTooling.com went national this week, so check them out. I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”
A much needed result moves Custer up to 25th in points, saying that his No. 41 Haas Automation/AutoDesk Fusion team are continuing to get better and unlike some drivers, he wishes to have practice sessions to further their improvement at each venue.
“I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track,” said Custer. “It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”
The next stop for the Cup Series will be at Kentucky Speedway for the running of the Quaker State 400 (Sunday, July 12 at 2:30 p.m. EST on FS1). In eight previous races, the 1.5-mile circuit is one a few tracks SHR has never won, something they’ll hope to change and bring home an 81st team win.