The Daytona 500 can define a season, but even NASCAR's most glorified event does not necessarily presage the outcome of it.
Nine times a Daytona 500 winner has gone on to win a championship that campaign, but mostly someone else does. Some who suffered through major disappointment or mere mediocrity at Daytona went on to great things.
But when the current disaster is another point on a troubling trend line, results in the Daytona 500 -- albeit in the fickle business of restrictor-plate racing -- can be ominous. And so Stewart-Haas Racing enters the so-called "real" commencement of the Sprint Cup season this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway in need of a spike.
"Daytona is a restrictor-plate race, and unlike Daytona, guys can't get in a line at Phoenix and go to the front," team co-owner/driver Tony Stewart said. "Daytona and Talladega have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it's more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can't help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race."
Getting on with things is crucial for SHR after a Speedweeks laced with problems of and beyond its control.
Kevin Harvick led SHR with a 13th-place finish in the Daytona 500 but appeared to prompt a Lap 146 chain reaction that sent teammate Danica Patrick hard into a non-SAFER-barrier-covered wall and out of the race with a 40th-place finish. Harvick crashed into a similarly unprotected spot at the finish.
Stewart had a miserable 16th winless installment of the Daytona 500 -- finishing 35th -- in his return following an Aug. 5 sprint car crash that broke his right leg and cost him the final 15 races of last season.
His woes, like many for SHR during Speedweeks, were the result of parts, pieces or procedures, as a fuel pressure problem associated with a fuel cell and its electronics was blamed for an unworkable No. 14 Chevrolet. That was the final blow for Stewart. He and Patrick had both blown motors in a practice session eight days before the Daytona 500, forcing them to the back of the field for both the 150-mile qualifying races and the feature, a double penalty for an unapproved engine change that debilitated much of their Speedweeks. Hendrick Motorsports, which leases engines to SHR, concluded that the failures were due to prequalifying procedures.
Earlier, three of the four cars had been knocked out in a nine-car incident in the non-points Sprint Unlimited.
The team avoided a major calamity when Stewart was able to race to a 10th-place finish in his Duel and assure entry into the Daytona 500 for Busch, whose No. 41 Chevrolet is a new program and devoid of owner points as a fallback. Busch would have earned his entry into the Daytona 500 anyway with a third-place finish but raced his Duel without the worry of missing his first points race since co-owner Gene Haas recruited, signed and sponsored him last summer.
Harvick, though second in his Duel, was found to have a track bar violation in postrace inspection, dropping his starting position for the Daytona 500 from fifth to 38th.
Still, Harvick, in his first points race with SHR after finishing third in points last season for Richard Childress Racing, said there was progress to be noted.
"I felt good about the communication and performance of the No. 4 team," he said. "We were in position to win both the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500, and that is all you can ask for at the end of the day."
When Harvick opted to leave RCR after 14 seasons to begin anew this year at SHR, he was drawn by the lure of a new opportunity with Stewart, a three-time series champion with a reputation for building quality foundations. The 2007 Daytona 500 winner said he wasn't reticent to leave RCR -- a move that was revealed more than a year in advance -- although SHR struggled as he finished last season with a flourish.
Stewart was 11th in points with one win when injured, slowly recovering from a languishing start in which SHR struggled to harness the new Gen-6 car and adjust to the addition of Patrick's third team. Ryan Newman, informed during the summer that he would not be retained, won the Brickyard 400 and finished 11th in points. Patrick, then a rookie, won the pole for the Daytona 500 but finished 27th in points driving Chevrolets in which she and crew chief Tony Gibson were not as good as they should have been.
Massive infrastructure improvements and the addition of Harvick and Busch were to be the tonic for the organization, and they still might be. A new energy was espoused throughout the preseason by the diverse and talented lineup, and it might be there. Stewart spoke this preseason of the disappointment he would feel if all but Patrick did not qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup field. And they could, especially with the Chase field increased to 16 drivers.
But the organization can't risk taking as long this year to find its footing, especially with Stewart admittedly a year away from a full recovery.
Phoenix could be a major push-off point, especially if Harvick replicates his recent success there. At worst, it should be a barometer. Harvick won the fall race at the 1-mile oval in November for his fourth there all time -- tied for the track record with Jimmie Johnson -- and has four top-5s in his past seven starts. But all of that came in RCR equipment.
"We're starting the rest of the season this weekend at Phoenix in a way," Harvick said. "[Crew chief] Rodney [Childers] has always built fast short-track race cars, and I'm really looking forward to building off what we've accomplished thus far."
Speaking specifically of his driver's need to recover at Phoenix, Patrick crew chief Tony Gibson said, "It's hard to make up [for] Daytona. But it can be done."
That will be a company-wide mandate beginning this weekend.