Momentum continues for Stewart-Haas Racing after strong qualifying

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Tony Stewart’s pole for tomorrow’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is another sign that the newly expanded four-car squad at Stewart-Haas Racing is finding its stride.

Stewart in particular has been earning momentum in recent weeks with two Top-5s (fourth at Bristol, fifth at Fontana) in his last three races. But overall, SHR’s performance has improved markedly and they’re now sitting as the only team with multiple drivers effectively in the Chase after Kevin Harvick’s win at Phoenix and Kurt Busch’s win at Martinsville last week.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing,” said Stewart of his team’s resurgence. “Our cars have had speed. I mean, Kurt and Kevin have been qualifying well all year and this week, [the 14 team] had a good run. The good thing is it’s not just one team, it’s the whole organization is having a really good start as far as qualifying’s concerned.

“So, I don’t know if we can really point to one thing to be truthful…It’s early in the year, the atmosphere in our shop’s really good right now – it has been ever since the end of the season last year. It’s just a lot of new faces and with that, there’s kind of a new excitement around our shop and it seems to be translating to what we’re seeing on the race track.”

As for the early-season issues that SHR had to deal with – including a notably poor run for Stewart in Las Vegas due to car issues – “Smoke” said they were just byproducts of both the expansion of SHR to a four-car franchise and working with the new rules package.

“Everything that we did last year is kinda out the window and now you’re doing things that are totally different, and you’re not doing it for one car, you’re doing it for all four cars,” Stewart said. “There’s just been a lot of changes – obviously, adding the fourth team but changing things, set-ups from last year to this year.

“What happened to us in Vegas was something that nobody would’ve predicted would happen. The good thing is they found it when they got the car back to Charlotte, found what the problem was. We’ve learned those things early, so hopefully that won’t bite us later in the year.”

Harvick set a new track record in the first round of qualifying before winding up third on the grid for tomorrow’s race, while Busch also made the final round and qualified 11th (the fourth SHR driver, Danica Patrick, will start 24th).

In his post-qualifying comments, Harvick noted that Stewart’s pole was as “good as it gets for the organization” and that it was “a huge improvement” from where SHR was just a few weeks ago.

“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface as a team,” Harvick said. “We’re still trying to get all the cars built, everything organized, flowing exactly how it needs to flow in the shop with all the stuff that we’ve changed over the winter…Adding a whole new team and bringing in new crew chiefs.

“I think everybody’s getting their – as you can see with [Stewart] – just getting their feet on the ground and getting to where we’re competing for poles and competing for wins. Having speed in the car hasn’t been the issue for the 4 team as we’ve gone through the weeks, and we’ve just got a few things to clean up and things are gonna be coming together even better.”

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.