It was the latest case of disappointment this year in Cup for Stewart-Haas Racing, which is a season removed from seeing all four of its drivers combine to win a team-best 12 races.
Despite having three of its four drivers above the playoff cutline, the team finds itself winless after 18 points races. That ties SHR’s record from 2011 for the latest it’s gone in a season without a win.
That year, Ryan Newman claimed SHR’s first victory in race No. 19 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Afterward, Tony Stewart went on his historic playoff run of five wins in 10 races to win the title.
One big difference between the SHR of 2019 and 2011 is the team only had Newman and Stewart as drivers in 2011. It has had four full-time cars in its stable since 2014.
SHR will try to make history repeat in the 19th race of the season this weekend. But instead of New Hampshire, the Cup Series heads to Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).
The team journeys to the 1.5-mile track with 13 top fives this season, with Harvick and Bowyer tied with five each. Suarez has two and Almirola one (Phoenix).
Five of their top fives have come on 1.5-mile tracks, with Bowyer and Suarez collecting the best finishes of second and third respectively at Texas in March.
Harvick has led in five of the six races on 1.5-mile tracks this year for a total of 383 laps. But his best finish is fourth two times (Atlanta, Las Vegas), which is also his best result overall so far.
At Chicagoland Speedway, Harvick led 132 laps before contact with the wall soured his day and sent him to a 14th place finish.
How have the SHR drivers fared at Kentucky?
First, none of them have won there. Second, they’ve combined to earn just two top fives there in 24 combined starts.
But that’s not just a SHR problem. In the eight races at the track since 2011, only Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and the defunct Furniture Row Racing have won there.
Kentucky represents one of the three active Cup tracks Harvick hasn’t won at (joining Pocono and the Charlotte Roval).
Harvick did earn his best Kentucky finish in eight starts last year with a fifth-place result. He’s also only led in one Kentucky race, leading 128 laps in 2016.
Almirola also earned his best Kentucky finish last year, placing eighth. His previous best in five starts was 12th.
Kentucky hasn’t been much kinder to Bowyer in his eight starts. He’s yet to lead a lap there and his best result was third in 2013. He’s failed to finish better than 12th in his remaining starts.
Suarez has a much smaller Kentucky resume with two starts and a best finish of 15th.
But it also might be remembered as the start of something big, as it was for a few other bolts from the blue in the Cup Series.
In only his third Cup start (and the 18th race for fledgling Spire Motorsports in its inaugural season), Haley was in first for one lap – the only lap he’s led in his career – when the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was stopped Sunday because of inclement weather.
The 20-year-old from Winamac, Indiana, inherited the lead when Kurt Busch pitted from the lead on Lap 127 of a scheduled 160. A little more than two hours later, after multiple holds for lightning and a downpour, Haley was declared the winner.
He became the first driver to win a race with one career lap led since Brad Keselowski scored his inaugural victory on April 26, 2009 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Keselowski is one of several Cup winners who were as unexpected as Haley was Sunday at Daytona.
Keselowski also is a good example of some who went on to create much greater legacies.
Here are some of the biggest upsets over the past 20 years in NASCAR’s premier series (which means we are excluding some memorable surprises from the Xfinity and truck series, such as David Gilliland at Kentucky Speedway in 2006):
The rookie won in his 27th career Cup start and catapulted into a playoff berth that was a seven-figure boon for Front Row Motorsports.
“This is going to change our whole year right here,” he said. “We got a win here, so we’ll take it any way we can get it.”
2013 Aaron’s 499: Another Front Row Motorsports stunner as teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2, rocketing from the fourth row in a two-lap overtime restart that ended a race delayed more than three hours by rain.
“This is a true David vs. Goliath moment here,” said Ragan, who snookered Carl Edwards with a last-lap pass for the second victory of his career (after winning at Daytona in July 2011).
“As frustrated as I am by this loss, I’m really happy for (Ragan and Gilliland),” Edwards said.
“I see how hard teams have to work to be competitive at this level. It truly couldn’t happen to two better guys.”
2011 Southern 500: “We’re not supposed to win this thing!” Regan Smith radioed his Furniture Row Racing team after his only victory in NASCAR’s premier series.
Earning his first career win in a signature race on one of the trickiest tracks in NASCAR (it had been 23 years since Darlington’s last first-time Cup winner, Lake Speed) was a feat for Smith. It also was the first win for Furniture Row Racing, which was only in its second full season and years removed from becoming a championship contender.
But most impressive was how Smith won: Inheriting the lead by staying on track under caution and then fending off Edwards (who was on fresh tires) on two late restarts. Smith slammed the Turn 2 wall on the final lap while holding the throttle wide open to join a roster of legendary Southern 500 winners that includes David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
“I don’t know if my name deserves to be next to them, but after tonight, maybe it does,” said Smith, who wouldn’t win again in Cup but became a perennial winner and title contender in Xfinity.
2011 Daytona 500: A day after turning 20, Trevor Bayne won the Great American Race in the second start of his Cup career. In a perfect blend of new blood meets old school, it was the first Daytona 500 win for venerable No. 21 of Wood Brothers Racing since Pearson outdueled Petty in a classic 1976 finish.
Bayne’s performance at Daytona International Speedway was nearly as sublime. As many Cup stars struggled to adapt to the phenomenon of tandem drafting, the Knoxville, Tennessee, native made a host of veteran moves to avoid many wrecks and parry a final charge by runner-up Edwards.
“If I tried to put it into words, I couldn’t do it any justice,” said Bayne, who famously radioed “Am I dreaming?” to his team after taking the checkered flag of the 53rd Daytona 500 to become the race’s youngest winner.
It would be the only Cup victory for Bayne, who didn’t run full time in NASCAR’s premier series until 2015. His career-best points ranking was 22nd, and he left the series after last season.
2009 Coca-Cola 600: David Reutimann was in 14th place when he stayed on track at Charlotte Motor Speedway and inherited his first lead just past the halfway mark of the longest race of the season.
Five laps later, NASCAR stopped the race, and after two hours of intermittent rain, Reutimann was named a first-time winner. The most notable thing he did during the first 300 miles of the race was anger Tony Stewart with some blocking maneuvers.
“It certainly wasn’t the prettiest, but someone’s got to win these things,” said the Michael Waltrip Racing driver, who had six top 10s in the previous 74 starts and failed to qualify for 10 races two years earlier. “We might as well take a gamble.”
Who made the genius call?
A crew chief named Rodney Childers.
2009 Aaron’s 499: In his fifth Cup start, Brad Keselowski drove with the verve of a veteran and never more so than on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway when he held steadfast on his line as Edwards cut down on him with a block that backfired.
The contact sent Edwards’ Ford sailing into the catchfence (scattering debris that injured seven fans) and introduced NASCAR to the steely resolve of the then relatively unknown Keselowski, 25, who delivered car owner James Finch’s underfunded and part-time team its only win in 251 starts.
“This is NASCAR racing at its finest,” Keselowski said. “This was a great show. … There has to be some element of danger. Who doesn’t love watching football players hitting each other head on as fast as they can? That’s what the fans want: Contact. If we’d ran all race without contact, someone would have written about how boring it was.”
The first restrictor-plate start of Keselowski’s Cup career didn’t lack for action. Keselowski admitted he nearly wrecked the field after a bump from Dale Earnhardt Jr. left him pointed him toward the infield but added, “but you ain’t got time to be scared. How does that saying go? ‘I ain’t got time to bleed’? You’d better go, and if you’re scared, this is not the right place to be, because that’s when you make poor decisions.”
The five-time Talladega winner eventually proved often to make the right decision in the track’s game of three-dimensional chess … but 10 years ago, it was stunning that he could be so good in his debut.
2002 UAW-GM Quality 500: This was how a whirlwind five weeks went for Jamie McMurray.
Hired to drive full time for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2003 … named less than a month later as injured Sterling Marlin’s replacement for the final seven races of the 2002 season … set a record in the second start of his Cup career by winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his self-proclaimed worst track in NASCAR.
“Everybody asks if I’m nervous,” McMurray said after leading 87 of the final 106 laps at Charlotte and beating Bobby Labonte (one of the best on the 1.5-mile oval during that era). “Yes, I’m freaking nervous!”
What made the Joplin, Missouri, native’s breakout from obscurity even more astounding was that his first Cup win came before his first victory in the Xfinity Series, where he had three top fives in 64 career starts to date. He quickly ran off two wins in the final five races of the Xfinity season, proving how far a little confidence can carry a driver.
“They took a chance on me,” McMurray said of team co-owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates after the Charlotte win. “They put me in first-class equipment, and I made the most of it.”
Said Ganassi: “It’s validated now. A lot of these young kids today have the talent and everyone’s fast. I look at the heart. Jamie’s got a lot of heart.”
William Byron, Jimmie Johnson continue strong showings
It’s not a coincidence that fellow NASCAR Cup drivers have been seeing a lot more of William Byron and Jimmie Johnson in their rearview mirrors of late.
And if things continue the way they have in the last couple of races, it’s only a matter of time before those same drivers soon will see Byron and Johnson in front of them a lot more often.
With Justin Haley awarded the win in Sunday’s rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, it was Byron and Johnson who finished second and third, respectively.
For Byron, it was oh-so-close to what would have been his first career Cup victory.
“It’s kind of an unsettling feeling that close to the win,” Byron said. “If a few things went our way after that last caution, we might have won.”
But Byron tempered that by adding, “You don’t want to win that way as your first win, I guess. Obviously, a win is a win. I would take it that way. It’s maybe not the prettiest way to do it, but I’ll take it.
“But I guess now that I finished second, I’d rather have it another way. It would have been great, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards for us. Still, to finish second with a backup car and start from the back, 40th, was really good. I’m happy with that. We can put the Daytona drama now behind us.”
Byron finished eighth at Chicagoland Speedway and second at Daytona. In his last eight races, he has five top-10 showings, including Sunday’s runner-up finish. He’s champing at the bit to get that elusive first Cup win.
“It would be really cool, so hopefully we can do that soon, hopefully next weekend for sure,” he said. “We’ve been close.”
Johnson, who remains winless in his last 77 Cup races (dating June 2017 at Dover), also has been improving slowly but steadily.
He has two top-five finishes in his last two races: fourth at Chicago and third at Daytona. Extrapolate that even further and Johnson has four top-10 finishes overall in his last seven starts.
“The last month, we’ve definitely been heading in the right direction, and I think we’re hitting our stride as a group right now,” Johnson said.
While Johnson lamented the fact that NASCAR may have gotten the full race in if it had started at 10 a.m. instead of 1 p.m. ET, he still was happy with the outcome in what is usually a wild-card race.
“Luckily, it’s over, it was just going to keep raining,” Johnson said. “Third-place points are pretty strong, so not a tremendous disappointment. With 33 laps to go (if the weather had cleared and the race would have restarted), there’s no telling how it would shake out.
“There could have been a wreck on the restart, and we could have finished in the 20s. We’ll take it, it is what it is, and move on.
“If it did go back to green, I think there’s only a handful of cars that were still in good shape. Certainly, William and I were going to do everything we could to get a Hendrick car to victory lane. But it is what is its, the race has been called, and we’ll take the third-place points and go home.”
Kurt Busch said he was on the “wrong side of a lightning bolt” Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
Busch finished 10th in the rain-shortened Cup race after his team and others decided to make a pit stop from the lead under caution on Lap 127, thinking the race would resume on the ensuing lap.
But with 33 laps to go, NASCAR issued a red flag for a lighting strike in the area after Busch returned to the track in 10th. The red flag remained for more than two hours, and Justin Haley was declared the winner of his first career Cup race.
“Our plan was to stay out as long as we could, and when they said one to go (until the green flag), we have to pit,” Busch told NBCSN. “Then they said a lightning bolt came by, which that was the same one from before.”
Busch called the decision by NASCAR a “judgment call on their part.”
In one of the most unlikely wins in recent NASCAR history, timing proved to be everything for 20-year-old Justin Haley, who was awarded the victory in Sunday’s rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Haley led only the final lap of the event, which was red-flagged because of lightning and then rain after 127 of a scheduled 160 laps. After a stoppage of more two hours, NASCAR attempted to dry the track at times, several more waves came through the area, prompting sanctioning body officials to end the event 33 laps shy of its scheduled 160-lap slate.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson took the two spots behind Haley, and Ty Dillon made it a sweep of the top four for Chevrolet the top four finishing spots in the 40-car field.