CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kevin Harvick has a victory, Aric Almirola should have won the Daytona 500 and Clint Bowyer is running well again – signs that Stewart-Haas Racing finally may have adjusted to its switch to Ford.
SHR would admit that last year was an off year, its first driving the Fusion after an exclusive Chevrolet partnership. But the team seemed far closer to its expected pace in the Daytona 500, where 2017 winner Kurt Busch and Almirola had chances to win in the closing laps.
Harvick had a dominating victory last week at Atlanta while Bowyer finished third, Busch seventh and Almirola 13th. Next up is Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Bowyer was the highest-finishing SHR driver there last year at 10th.
The team has looked strong – and closer to equal across the board with the additions of Almirola and Bowyer in place of Danica Patrick and team co-owner Tony Stewart – through two races. But no one is breathing easy just yet.
”It’s a moving target, right?” SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said. ”Absolutely, we’re in a little bit better place. These guys have had a year to work with the (Ford) and understand it and make some little adjustments.”
As SHR and the Ford soars into Las Vegas, the race has become a strong barometer for Chevrolet and its new Camaro.
Camaro drivers Austin Dillon and Bubba Wallace finished 1-2 in the Daytona 500, on top of Alex Bowman’s pole in the debut for the Camaro. Chevy can ride on those victories for months – unless, of course, the Camaro has some catching up to do with the competition.
Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott were the highest-finishing Chevy drivers at Atlanta in ninth and 10th, and there were only six Camaros in the top 20. Remember, Chevy had 17 of the 36 entries at Atlanta, so by default the manufacturer should pull in a decent average finish.
Chevy was long-pressed to make this year’s move to the Camaro, and Las Vegas will be a good indicator of where the car still needs some work.
Also at Las Vegas …
JOHNSON SLUMPS: Johnson took to Twitter after the horrific start to his season to express his mindset.
The seven-time series champion posted that ”F.E.A.R. has two meanings.” His choices are to ”Forget Everything And Run” or ”Face Everything And Rise.”
What does he plan?
”I’m ready to rise,” Johnson, ordinarily laid back, said in a dramatic post.
Johnson wrecked in all three of his races at Daytona and was 27th at Atlanta. He’s also 35th in the point standings, territory Johnson is not supposed to be near.
But Johnson is a four-time winner at Las Vegas, so Sunday is a chance for him to snap this slump.
However, if his struggles go hand in hand with anything related to switching to the Camaro, there could be bigger issues to address. The retirement of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. cost Chevrolet two veterans who can offer specific feedback about the car. When SHR moved to Ford, Chevrolet lost Harvick, Busch and Stewart.
Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman are as grizzled as the veterans get in the Chevrolet camp, and Johnson has his hands full at Hendrick Motorsports. His own team has flipped and Johnson is now the mentor to Elliott, Bowman and William Byron, a trio all under 25.
If Johnson is going to rise, he needs to start at least moving to the front at Las Vegas.
PAGING TRUEX: This is a case of the mysteriously quiet start to the season for defending Cup champion Martin Truex Jr.
Truex hasn’t won anything this year – nothing at all – and that’s unheard of after last year. He won every meaningful statistic, so there was no reason to believe the start of this year wouldn’t be the same.
Instead, his team struggled with inspection at Atlanta and he drove from 35th to fifth to salvage the weekend.
In fairness, his season didn’t take off last year until Las Vegas, where he won the first of his eight races and two of his 19 stage victories, both series highs. If there’s no hangover for the reigning champion, Las Vegas will be where he can prove it.
NEW NASCAR!: All the veteran drivers appear to be in on the ”wink-wink” acceptance of NASCAR’s marketing of young, future stars. The latest to acknowledge the inside joke was Kasey Kahne, who posted a picture alongside Larson and Ryan Blaney before the three boarded a private plane for Las Vegas.
”Old guy hanging with the young guys,” Kahne wrote on Twitter.
Kahne lost his job at the end of last season to 20-year-old William Byron and he’s now with Leavine Family Racing. A year ago with Hendrick Motorsports, he was seventh at Daytona and fourth at Atlanta. In his debut with Leavine, he was 34th and 21st last week.
Kahne’s going to have a long season, so it’s in his best interest to have a good sense of humor.
More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/