Life is good for Hendrick, Stewart-Haas
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Doug Duchardt moved quickly toward Tony Stewart's mangled No. 14 car parked at the end of the Sprint Cup garage at Pocono Raceway two weeks ago.
"Going to check on your children?" he was asked.
Duchardt smiled and nodded an affirmative as he peered under the hood of the machine Stewart crashed in the first Saturday practice.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Carolyn KasterTony Stewart, right, and crew chief Darian Grubb have forged a winning combination at Stewart-Haas.
"Absolutely," the vice president of development for Hendrick Motorsports said. "We understand a healthy, strong partner like Stewart-Haas is good for our organization."
HMS has partnered with SHR, known as Haas CNC Racing before this season, since co-owner Gene Haas entered NASCAR's premier series in 2002. For the most part, it has been a one-sided deal on the competition side.
Until now, few said Hendrick and Haas CNC were basically a six-car team as they do Hendrick and Stewart-Haas.
Until now, few paid attention to the Haas side at all. Its cars were parked at the opposite end of the garage with other organizations struggling to stay in the top 35. Interaction with Hendrick employees went largely unnoticed.
But it was there, just as it was on this sun-splashed Saturday when key people from both organizations worked in harmony to ready Stewart's backup, which eventually won the race, for the second practice.
"It's always been an open book," said Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb, who was with HMS before this season. "I was the guy that a lot of that information went through. I was the guy providing a lot of that information to Haas CNC.
"It's always been a very strong relationship from the technical side of what we've done back and forth with Haas machinery and then the technical aspects of the cars. It's just been a matter of applying it at the racetrack." There's a perception that the sharing of information between Hendrick and SHR has improved greatly since Stewart was given 50 percent ownership of the organization midway through last season.
That's understandable because Grubb and Tony Gibson, Ryan Newman's crew chief, are former Hendrick employees and remain good friends with Duchardt and most top HMS people.
That Stewart and Newman are first and fifth in points, having collected more wins, top-5s and top-10s in less than half a season than Haas CNC drivers did in seven, adds to the perception.
But in reality, not much has changed. SHR still gets engines and chassis from Hendrick. Hendrick still gets Haas machinery that is integral to its engine department.
Crew chiefs and engineers from both sides still communicate and help one another as much as possible.
"It hasn't changed any," said Joe Custer, the executive vice president of SHR, who came up with the idea to partner with Stewart. "I do feel we've taken more advantage of the information we get and the whole relationship. We're actually using the stuff more.
"It's showing in the results."
That's an understatement. Stewart and Newman have combined for one win, 12 top-5s and 19 top-10s. They've led 237 laps.
Before this season, Haas CNC Racing had no wins, one top-5 and 14 top-10s in 284 events. Its drivers led a total of 109 laps.
Thus the perception that there has been a major change in the way the two companies do business.
That Hendrick's Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are second and third in points, with Mark Martin eighth, adds to the perception. That a Hendrick or SHR car has won the past three races and seven of 10 makes it appear as though everybody outside these organizations is racing for second.
"Any time you get teams that are performing to the caliber we have this season, people are going to start watching it more," Grubb said. "If we were 30th in points, nobody would care."
What Hendrick and SHR have accomplished defies past alliances. Hall of Fame Racing never succeeded with support from Joe Gibbs Racing. Yates Racing never has shown the benefit most expected from its relationship with Roush Fenway Racing.
So what's the big difference?
And despite what most say about how the sharing hasn't changed, there is more communication and a better understanding of what each brings to the table because of past relationships.
When HMS engineers and crew chiefs provide Grubb with information, he knows how to apply it without thinking twice. The same goes for Gibson, a former member of Jeff Gordon's team.
"The decisions they make are more in line with how we run and some of the things we do," Duchardt said. "It makes it easier to apply the knowledge back and forth."
The communication was there with Bootie Barker and other crew chiefs at Haas CNC, but they weren't always able to translate it to the cars and drivers.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Russ Hamilton Sr.Tony Stewart gave Stewart-Haas Racing its maiden points win June 7 at Pocono Raceway.
"They definitely had access to all the tools," Grubb said. "It's just a matter of actually applying it. They also had issues with consistency of drivers and other things." Riggs believes that the books are more open now. Because crew chiefs and drivers had only one-year deals at Haas CNC, he sensed a hesitation on Hendrick's part with sharing completely for fear that secrets would spread throughout the garage.
"What little I've talked to people like [competition director] Matt Borland, we were getting single digits of what they're getting this year compared to last," Riggs said.
"Now, it's one big, six-team family, and everybody works hard to do a good job to get better. That's what it takes."
There is more information flow, but not the way Riggs portrays it. Hendrick engineers and crew chiefs aren't invited to Stewart-Haas competition meetings or vice versa.
All six teams don't get together on race weekends for debriefings after practice and qualifying.
But there is a lot more talk between the six teams, in part because of their past relationships and in part because the SHR teams are competing at a level that makes their information actually useful.
"Let's be honest, what could they take from running where we were at?" Custer said. "I've heard Chad [Knaus, Johnson's crew chief] mention now he feels we're adding something to the pot after practice, so that's an improvement, a gain on their side."
Johnson likes what he has seen.
"The team has always had our stuff," he said. "It's nice to see they have notes and crew chiefs to bring stuff to the table to us. That's really starting to grow."
Grubb still insists it's more perception than reality to believe that the way the partnership works has changed dramatically. He recalled many times when he learned something from the Haas CNC people while at HMS.
"There's been a lot of times I was sitting there having a conversation with Bootie Barker in the garage and nobody paid any attention to us," he said. "We always talked."
To suggest SHR and Hendrick are a six-car operation isn't fair, Grubb added.
"I fully disagree with it," he said. "If they come over here and see the 150 people we have working here that paycheck doesn't come from Hendrick Motorsports. We don't have anybody over there that we pay from the Stewart-Haas payroll, either.
"Everything we do as a race team is all here. We just receive the bare chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. We are a very strong stand-alone organization."
If it were as simple as many suggest, Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr. wouldn't be laboring at 18th in points. He'd simply take the setups being used by the other HMS and SHR drivers and be in Chase contention as they are.
It doesn't work that way. As Grubb correctly noted, Johnson can't take Gordon's setup and expect to win because it doesn't fit him. The same goes for Stewart and Newman.
Every driver has a different style and feel, and that requires different setups. But there is more of a family relationship between these organizations than ever before. Much of the exchange of knowledge comes from casual conversation among these guys.
That their haulers are parked next to one other alone provides more opportunity than when they were 30 haulers apart.
"We talk regardless of whether we're talking race cars or not," Grubb said. "If you learn something that you think can help you or if you had a question, you're going to ask.
"It's a sounding board for questions. We transfer enough information that we know what everybody has got if you need it."
That has transferred into success for both organizations. And there's no jealousy between the two. Hendrick employees took almost as much pride in seeing Stewart earn his first points win at Pocono with a backup car they helped prepare as they do when one of their drivers wins.
"We're all a big family in the garage area, but yes, we do have more of a brotherly relationship with Hendrick than we do with our stepbrothers from anybody else," Grubb said.
Duchardt even refers to SHR as "we" occasionally.
"'We' to me is Hendrick Motorsports," he said. "That encompasses what we supply to customers. If any of our motors has a problem, it's a 'we.'"
That's not likely to change once the Chase begins. The goal remains to build engines within one horsepower of one another and let the individual teams get what they can out of them.
"Our goal in [the chassis and engine shop] is to put six cars in the Chase," Duchardt said. "There's a high degree of professionalism in both of those shops. The guys were excited after Tony won the All-Star Race and excited after Pocono.
"The fact that it's the customer car doesn't really change a lot for guys in those areas."
That's the way it is when you have children.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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