Greg Zipadelli, the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing and longtime confidante of Tony Stewart, said the team has fallen behind on technology relative to the top NASCAR Sprint Cup teams.
Zipadelli said the combination of adding a third car for Danica Patrick, converting to the new Generation-6 cars and shuffling personnel internally has left SHR well behind top teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports so far this season.
Coming into Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Ryan Newman is 17th in points, Stewart 21st and Patrick 28th. Thursday night, Newman qualified 10th for the Coca-Cola 600, with Patrick 24th and Stewart 25th.
Those aren’t the results expected from a team that just two years ago won the series championship.
And no one knows that better than Zipadello.
“We’re certainly going through growing pains,” said Zipadelli. “We got behind a lot more than we thought we would. We’re now just getting to the point where we’re really getting time to make our cars better, build new cars, think about things more.”
SHR buys it chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, but assembles its own cars, which early in the season put the team in a deep hole. Put simply, in the first two months of the season, the team struggled just to get enough people and parts to get the cars finished in time to make it to the track.
“We’re smaller than a lot of the places,” Zipadelli said. “Sometimes it allows us to move faster, but it makes it really hard for us to catch up, because we don’t have the resources to move a lot of people.”
As far as the Hendrick connection, that only goes so far.
“They’re there to help us, but we still have to build our own cars and get ‘em right and have our crew chiefs be able to put setups underneath that their drivers want,” said Zipadelli. “That’s their responsibility — not send a car over to Hendrick and have them set it up.”
From the Hendrick perspective, the help is still there if SHR wants it, according to Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon.
“All the information is openly available like it always has been. Nothing has changed there,” said Gordon. “I think the crew chiefs talk among one another quite a bit. I talk to Tony (Stewart) from time to time, but I know that they haven’t been a part of our debrief call-ins and sit-down meetings that we have on Tuesday as much this year as they have been in the past.”
Newman, who is in the final year of his contract with SHR and aware that Kevin Harvick will be joining the team in 2014, said he doesn’t feel the team is far behind the competition.
“I think ‘behind’ is a loaded word,” Newman said. “I think our guys have been doing a good job. I think a lot of our development has been on time with respect to the new car, and I think we just haven't got the entire package, when it comes to the setup, quite right yet.”
Newman said the team is still looking for the sweet spot in terms of handling with the new Gen-6 cars.
“We're not behind body-wise, I don't feel,” he said. “I don't feel like we're behind power-wise. I think the Hendrick guys do a great job with that. But balancing all four tires of the race car, I'd say we're lacking in that. … But rest assured, nobody is sleeping more than they should.”
As for the Hendrick connection, Newman said it wasn’t a panacea for SHR’s ills.
“Just because we have the (Hendrick) inventory of knowledge doesn't mean we have the inventory of performance,” said Newman. “And then I think conversely, if you look at 2011 when Tony won five out of the 10 Chase races, I think if you're a Hendrick fan, you're wondering why isn't Rick Hendrick and these guys checking out — Jimmie Johnson and Jeff and all these guys — copying what the 14 (Stewart) is doing? I mean, it's part of the cycles of racing. We all click at certain times.”
As far as personnel, Zipadelli flatly denied rumors that the team is contemplating crew changes at the moment.
“Where did the rumors come from?” Zipadelli asked. “It has not been discussed at Stewart-Haas Racing. Why we are running bad, or why we are not finishing good and why our drivers don’t have the cars that they need to be competitive is what we’re talking about and what we’re trying to figure out.”
Although SHR is down, Gordon said he doesn’t regard them as out by any means.
“In my opinion they probably are struggling a little bit more than they would like to,” said Gordon, “but they are also a team that could turn things around fairly quickly and get back on track.”
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.