Under even the most optimistic scenario, expecting Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing team to catch lightning in a bottle two years in a row was probably unrealistic.
Which makes the team’s 2012 results understandable.
A quick flashback: SHR co-owner/driver Stewart came out of nowhere in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, winning five of 10 races to claim his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Teammate Ryan Newman, meanwhile, finished 10th in points.
For a team to win the championship in only its third year of existence, as SHR did last year, was unheard of. In the process, Stewart became the first owner/driver to win a title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
Repeating that in 2012 was going to be nearly impossible.
And it was.
The team still had a very solid season — Stewart won three races, all in the first half of the season, and finished ninth in points, while Newman won the spring Martinsville race and ended the year 14th.
It wasn’t a fourth championship, but the only drivers who won more races than Stewart in 2012 were Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, good company, to be sure.
For Stewart, there were mixed feelings about the season just concluded.
“I think the high point is probably winning at Las Vegas,” he said. “Winning at a track we hadn’t won at before was definitely a high point.A lot of places that we were so good at last year in the Chase, not being good this time and this year around was a little disappointing.”
While SHR’s on-track product was competitive, as a business, the company went through a number of transitions. Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s longtime crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, was brought on board as the team’s director of competition, while veteran Steve Addington replaced Darian Grubb as Stewart’s crew chief.
The big hire, of course, was Danica Patrick, who ran a 10-race schedule in preparation to going full-time in a third SHR Chevrolet in 2013.
Late in the season, Tony Gibson was moved from being crew chief of Newman’s No. 39 SHR Chevy to Patrick’s No. 10, while Newman was reunited with Matt Borland, his former crew chief at Penske Racing. While at Penske, Newman and Borland combined for 12 race victories and 37 poles.
On top of the personnel changes, there were pressing business issues at hand: Office Depot and the U.S. Army, two of SHR’s core sponsors since the team’s founding in 2009, both announced they were leaving at the end of 2012. In the case of Office Depot, the company’s financial woes contributed mightily to its departure, while the Army was under intense pressure from factions in Congress to cut back on its sponsorship spending.
To help pick up the slack, SHR signed Bass Pro Shops to serve as a primary sponsor on Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy along with Mobil 1. On Newman’s car, Quicken Loans will increase its primary sponsorship from nine races in 2012 to 18 next season.
Faced with sponsorship issues, SHR re-signed Newman to a one-year contract extension, reportedly at a deeply reduced compensation level.
The tantalizing story for the team comes in 2014, when Kevin Harvick, Stewart’s close friend, will leave Richard Childress Racing and join SHR. Whether the team remains three cars then or becomes four remains to be seen, although in either case, it will give the team another very successful and talented driver, as well as a different look.
As for 2012, the report card for SHR will read good but not great. Still, it’s clear that four years into its existence, the team has firmly established itself among the elite organizations in NASCAR and should remain there for years to come.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.