Busch’s Consistency, Ford Switch and Stewart’s Farewell Fill Stewart-Haas Racing Headlines in 2016

HHP/Harold Hinson

Their Chase run could best be described as underwhelming, but the historic regular season run of Kurt Busch and proper sendoff of Tony Stewart were enough to make 2016 a memorable final year with Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.

SHR found a constant presence on the front pages of racing publications in 2016, but rarely were the headlines related to their on-track results.

The first big news of the year came back in Sept. 2015, when Stewart announced that his 18th full-time season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (then Sprint Cup Series) would be his last.

Coming near the end of Jeff Gordon’s farewell tour (by plan, at least), Stewart’s retirement news filled the airwaves through the winter months as longtime fans and critics began to ponder his final year.

What would tracks do to honor Stewart? Could ‘Smoke’ find a way to contend in his final year after two tumultuous seasons?

Could Stewart finally claim the NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500?

In the end, the answer to the final question would be determined before the green flag ever flew.

Stewart was riding sand rails in the sand dunes near the Arizona-California border when he suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebrate in a crash.

The veteran would need back surgery, sidelining him for just over two months. For the third time in his final four seasons, Stewart would miss races.

With Stewart out, Brian Vickers filled in the No. 14 for Daytona. Ty Dillon climbed behind the wheel of the vehicle the following week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the two drivers split duties competing with rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz until Stewart’s return at Richmond International Raceway in April.

Even as the season began, SHR continued to draw attention off-track as the company announced on Feb. 26 that they would switch from Chevrolet to Ford in 2017.

The news came as a shock to the team’s fans, beginning the end of SHR’s remaining ties with Hendrick Motorsports and paving the way for career Chevrolet driver Kevin Harvick to make his first manufacture change since joining the MENCS in 2001.

The No. 14 team went through the sorts of struggles one would expect with alternating drivers and a young crew chief, finishing outside of the top 30 three times in Stewart’s absence. Still, there were occasional bursts of success, with Vickers bringing the team a seventh-place result at Martinsville Speedway.

While the No. 14 team adapted to their circumstances, SHR’s other three teams continued on with business as usual.

Harvick continued to lead the way for the company, fending off a late charge from Carl Edwards to claim his eighth-career win at Phoenix International Raceway in a photo finish.

Following his win, the 2014 Cup Series champion continued to deliver the strong runs the No. 4 team has become known for over the last three years, finishing inside of the top 10 in 20 of the season’s opening 25 races.

While Harvick contended for wins, Kurt Busch began a streak of consistency unlike any the MENCS has ever seen.

Busch was rarely the fastest car on-track, falling victim to the strong runs of teammate Harvick, Team Penske and the Toyota pair of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing. However, Busch quickly became a constant presence on the lead lap.

In his third season with SHR, Busch opened the year with just two top fives in first 10 races, but he still sat sixth in the series standings due to 10-consecutive finishes on the lead lap.

Six-straight top 10s and a win at Pocono Raceway later, the Las Vegas, Nev., native had risen to second.

Busch endured a couple difficult runs through the summer months, but the No. 41 team managed to complete 22-straight races on the lead lap to open the season, a NASCAR record.

After making headlines for the wrong reasons in previous seasons, Kurt Busch and the No. 41 team found quiet consistency in 2016. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

In the end, Busch’s streak would be undone only by the Nevadan’s urge to win one of NASCAR’s biggest races.

Busch was battling for the lead at Bristol Motor Speedway when he lost control of his No 41, crashing into Turn 3 and ending his consistent run.

Harvick would go on to win that race, his second victory of the year. In one of the year’s special moments, the Californian celebrated the moment by sharing twin burnouts with Stewart in his final drive on the Last Great Coliseum.

For Stewart, 2016 was defined by special moments.

After returning in the ninth race of the season at Richmond, Stewart began a truncated retirement tour.

Unlike Gordon, whose final year was filled with gifts from each track, Stewart’s farewell tour rarely garnered more than a billboard or a section of the wall painted in his honor.

That was the way Stewart wanted it, or at least so he claimed. Stewart’s entire career was spent racing, not searching for attention.

Still, a few groups made sure that ‘Smoke’ was given a proper sendoff.

Things began over the summer at Stewart’s home track -Indianapolis Motor Speedway. IMS President Doug Boles had a temporary dirt track added to the Turn 3 section of the famed 2.5-mile oval, allowing Stewart, Sarah Fisher and Bryan Clauson to make laps around the track in a midget.

Stewart’s final voyage on the oval at IMS in July was often overshadowed when Gordon returned to replace the injured Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but in the end the two drivers shined together when they took a heartwarming parade lap around the track together after the race.

Stewart received many gifts and honors throughout the year, including a life-sized bobblehead from Texas Motor Speedway, but his brightest moment on the year was supplied himself.

Courtesy of a timely yellow, Stewart found himself in the lead with the laps winding down at Sonoma Raceway in June. The Hoosier was forced to hold off a plethora of charges from multiple drivers, and even surrendered the lead to Denny Hamlin on the race’s final lap. But when Hamlin locked up his brakes going into the track’s final turn, Stewart maneuvered his way around his former JGR teammate to earn his first win since 2013 and make his way into the Chase.

Danica Patrick continued to struggle in 2016, failing to make the Chase for the fourth-straight year since she began racing full time in the Cup Series in 2013. However, her teammates all earned their way into the playoff with victories.

When the Chase finally arrived, Stewart was quickly vanquished due to his No. 14 team’s struggles in the Round of 16.

Busch and Harvick rode consistency into the Round of 8, but SHR’s late struggles to find speed would be their undoing, as both drivers were eliminated from the Chase after the penultimate race at Phoenix.

Statistically, 2016 was essentially par for the course for SHR. The team was more consistent than ever, with a 15.78 average finish, their best since 2011. Their six wins tied 2011 and 2014 for the most in SHR’s history, and their 33 top 10s were their most in the company’s eight years.

SHR’s lone true step back in 2016 came at the front of the pack. SHR struggled to lead laps in their final season with Chevrolet, pacing the field for just 1,688 circuits.

That mark, while greater than each of the company’s first five seasons, was only a shade over half of the 3,113 laps led in 2015.

In the end, SHR’s 2016 will be remembered as much for the moments away from the racetrack as it will for their success on it.

Stewart’s farewell as a NASCAR driver was memorable, as was Busch’s impressive beginning, but now the organization begins anew as they transition to a new manufacturer.

In 2017 SHR will bring on Clint Bowyer to drive Stewart’s No. 14 Ford. The company will also field an XFINITY Series entry for the first time, with 2016 Truck Series rookie Cole Custer stepping up to run full-time in NASCAR’s second series.

There will be problems to solve coming out of the gate.

Save for Harvick, the organization has often struggled to find the speed necessary to win. Those hoping for Patrick’s transition from open wheel to NASCAR to yield success are still waiting for their payoff as Cup’s lone female driver continues to struggle.

Will a switch to Ford and a shakeup within the organization be enough to give the team the speed capable of consistently contending? Will Patrick improve in 2017?

Those questions and more will soon be answered.

2016 was the final season for SHR as fans have come to know them over the last eight years. For that reason, if not the results on-track, it’ll be a year the organization’s supporters recall for years to come.

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