Question of third team looms before SHR

Stewart-Haas Racing had an incredibly successful first season in 2009 under the ownership of driver Tony Stewart. It didn't take long for fans and insiders to start speculating if and when the two-car team, which fields Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet and the No. 39 of Ryan Newman, would expand to three.

Last fall Stewart said it would be too late to get a third car up and running for the 2010 season. But Director of Competition Bobby Hutchens may have stirred the pot when he said during the NASCAR Charlotte Media Tour that the team could expand in the future - as soon as 2011 - and was in fact fielding a third pit crew.

The crew will train with the 14 and 39 and will be loaned out to Bobby Labonte and the No. 71 team of TRG Motorsports on race days. Members of the crew will also jump in on the 14 and 39 teams when needed.

While the practice of utilizing a backup pit crew appears to be standard for many teams, the announcement has only fueled speculation that SHR is preparing to running a third car. Both Stewart and Hutchens admitted Tuesday that should they decide to expand the operation, they would already have a pit crew in place, ready to go.

" ... If a third team develops down the road, we're not going to be in that position of not being able to get guys. We'll have that third pit crew already there and can just build on it, and then just build up another reserve of guys behind that and keep it going," Stewart said.

SHR may have to decide on the question of expansion sooner rather than later, as two big names in the Sprint Cup Series may be looking for new rides for the 2011 season: Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick. The two revealed little on Tuesday regarding their futures after their contracts expire at the end of this year.

Kahne drives for Richard Petty Motorsports, which seems to be in a perpetual tail spin. The organization merged with Gillette-Evernham Motorsports, Kahne's original employer, in January 2009. Then RPM announced in September that it would merge with Yates Racing and change manufacturers from Chrysler to Ford.

Confused yet? Remarkably, Kahne never was. He handled himself graciously, never losing his cool in an undoubtedly frustrating situation, and kept his focus on the racing. Kahne finished the 2009 season 10th in points, with two wins, seven top-5s and 14 top-10s. He said toward the end of last season that he was keeping his options open for 2011.

"The ups and downs of the team have made it difficult for me to really say, 'Man, I'm going to be here for 10 more years.' I really don't know what's going to happen," Kahne said in a November interview.

But at the Charlotte Media Tour, Kahne sounded more optimistic about his chances of staying at RPM.

“A lot of teams have showed interest, and that’s nice to know. I’m open [to staying] right now, because I don’t know exactly what we have. … I feel like it’s something I definitely need to pay attention to and not say, ‘Man, I don’t want to be here,’ because this could be a spot where I do want to be.”

Kasey - don't sign on the dotted line with RPM just yet. SHR, with both drivers in last year's Chase and no visible signs of disarray, could provide Kahne with good equipment and the opportunity to contend for a championship, as well as a stable employer. Factor in Kahne and Stewart's friendship, and it could be a match made in Victory Lane.

But that brings us to another good friend of Smoke's with his own problems: Harvick.

Happy's season was anything but in 2009. Battling a winless streak that now spans 107 races, Harvick missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time since 2005. He finished the season 19th in points, with five top-5 and nine top-10 finishes.

Richard Childress Racing, Harvick's employer, struggled as a whole in 2009, with none of the organization's four drivers making the Chase. The relationship between Harvick and team owner Richard Childress became strained, as was evident when the two sometimes sparred over the scanner during races.

Rumors circulated that Harvick wanted out of his contract a year early, in 2010, and even had the RCR driver in a third car for SHR. Harvick put the rumors to rest in an interview, but only raised more speculation when he indicated he wanted to look elsewhere for the 2011 season.

When the question of returning to RCR in 2011 came up at the media tour, Harvick dodged it, thanking Childress for the opportunity he had given him in the sport.

"No matter how it all turns out, I don’t want to be disrespectful to anybody. If it ends, I want it to end peacefully; if it stays, I want it to stay peaceful.”

Hoping to keep his team's morale in place, Harvick said at last weekend's Fan Fest at Daytona, “[What] it all boils down to … it’s all about winning races, and that’s all I care about," he said.

Now that's something SHR could help Harvick with. The organization won four races in 2009, all by Stewart during his first year as an owner-driver. The team's proven ability to win would certainly appeal to Harvick. Plus, if Happy were to move to SHR, he'd still be driving a Chevy, but with chassis supplied by powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, who have set the standard in Sprint Cup competition. Factor in Harvick's penchant for practical jokes, and he would complete the trifecta of SHR drivers very nicely.

NASCAR racing hasn't even started yet, but one thing fans can expect will be speculation involving SHR, Kahne and Harvick and where both drivers will end up in 2011.

Let the silly season begin!

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the individual writer and may not reflect those of the group.

SHR photo: From left, Tony Gibson, crew chief of the No. 39,
Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Darien Grubb, crew chief of the No. 14, and SHR competition director Bobby Hutchens meet the media during the Charlotte Media Tour on Monday. (NASCAR Media)
Kasey Kahne photo: Fro
m duaneschoon on Flickr

Kevin Harvick photo: From Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway on Flickr
Question of third team looms before SHR Question of third team looms before SHR Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Tuesday, January 19, 2010 Rating: 5