While none of its four teams ultimately scored the victory in Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway, it was still a powerful weekend overall for Stewart-Haas Racing, which showed incredible strength all weekend long.
The four-car team, which fields the No. 4 car for Kevin Harvick, No. 10 car for Aric Almirola, No. 14 car for Chase Briscoe, and No. 41 car for Ryan Preece, combined to lead 264 of the 400 laps in the event.
According to Srigley Stats, Sunday's race at Martinsville marked the first time in team history that multiple SHR drivers led more than 100 laps in the same event.
And despite a speeding miscue on pit road for Preece, who won the opening Stage of the race, and a flat tire late in the race for Harvick, who won the race's second Stage, the team finished with two cars inside the top 10 and all four cars inside the top-20 of the final running order.
In the end, the race was won on pit strategy due to a late-race caution. The winning strategy proved to be a two-tire pit stop for Kyle Larson and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team on the final stop of the day. Hindsight is 20/20, obviously, but Briscoe wishes in retrospect that his team had elected to stay on the racetrack as Joey Logano did.
Logano, who was a backmarker all race long, held his own, led 25 laps, and finished second to Larson on older tires.
"It's always easier after the fact to say, yeah, maybe we should have stayed out. But at that moment, being in the lead, it's one of the hardest things I feel like to do in racing because I feel like everybody behind you is going to do the opposite," Briscoe explained. "Obviously, wish we would have stayed out now, but who knows if we would have won the race still."
Despite wondering what may have been had he and his team elected to stay out on the final pit stop, Briscoe was able to walk away from Martinsville Speedway with his second-consecutive fifth-place finish and he has moved to 15th in the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings after being outside the top-30 following the third race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
While it was a much-needed good day for Almirola, who scored his first top-10 finish of the season with a sixth-place effort, the 39-year-old racer was anguished by an opportunity for a victory that slipped through his grasp.
"It was a good day for us. Felt good to run up front and race around for the lead all day. To be in position. Just didn't put the whole pieces of the puzzle together to make it happen. Honestly, frustrated, but it's good to be frustrated with a sixth because our year has been pretty bad," Almirola said following the race. "We've had such terrible luck and terrible finishes, but it does feel good to run up front and finish up front. But damn, I thought we were in a position all race to be one of the cars that could win. Wish we could have executed and got it done."
Almirola echoed the frustrations, of track position playing such a key role in success during Sunday's race, of several other drivers.
"I agree, especially once we got to halfway in the race and everybody kind of worked on their cars. I mean, look at it. A lot of the guys that we lapped early in the race get lucky with a caution. Pick them up, put them on the same tires in front of us, and we can't pass them," Almirola explained. "It's just crazy that the cars are that equal and that close. A place like Martinsville, it's incredibly difficult to pass. The cars are aero-sensitive and the tire doesn't fall off at all."
While there was a lot to be frustrated about, Almirola chose to stay encouraged by the pace that his Ford Mustang had at the 0.526-mile paperclip.
"It feels good to finally have a race that went relatively smoothly. It didn't go completely smooth, if it would have went completely smooth, I think we have a great shot to win this race," Almirola said. "I outran [Larson] all day. I battled with my teammates and [Hamlin] for the lead all day. I thought we had a great race car, thought we had the capability to win this race. Just sometimes strategy and things play out and it doesn't go right."
While Preece, like Almirola, was very disappointed in the end result on Sunday, Preece says he only has himself to blame for his 15th-place result.
"I'm more disappointed in myself I guess, speeding off that first box," Preece said. "I didn't -- I guess, should have known that it could be possible. But the first time I got off [pit road] there, I didn't think we could do that, but I guess we can. Ultimately, that's my job. My job is to make sure we don't speed on pit road. We did that, that took us out of the race."
Harvick rounded out the Stewart-Haas Racing running order with a 20th-place finish, but prior to a tire going flat following his final pit stop of the day, Harvick was the leader of the race.
While the finishes weren't indicative of how stout the Stewart-Haas Racing cars were Sunday at Martinsville, there were a lot of positives that the team was able to take away from the short track.
Currently, Sunday's performance puts an SHR blip on the radar. If the team can continue building momentum this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway and beyond, the organization could assert itself once again as one of the dominant forces in the sport. And if it does, a disappointing day at Martinsville will be circled as the turning point.
Photo Credit: Jonathan McCoy / TobyChristie.com
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