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How Will Stewart-Haas Racing Fill Kevin Harvick’s Shoes?

On Jan. 12, after an offseason of speculation, Kevin Harvick officially announced his retirement from full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition at the conclusion of the 2023 season.

For Stewart-Haas Racing, 2023 will be a year of celebration. Thirty-seven of Harvick’s 60 Cup wins have come with SHR, a total that accounts for more than half of the team’s 69 wins at the Cup level. In a nine-year tenure while paired with crew chief Rodney Childers, Harvick won the 2014 championship and made five appearances in the Championship 4. He will leave SHR as its most decorated driver, and everyone involved with the team will look to provide him with the greatest sendoff possible.

But at the same time, 2023 will be a year of uncertainty. Because once the checkered flag waves at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 5, the face of SHR will no longer be behind the steering wheel. Who will step up to fill the void left by Harvick for 2024 and beyond?

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It’s a daunting task for any team to replace a first-ballot hall-of-famer. Hendrick Motorsports has been fortunate enough to replace Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson with Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, respectively, two drivers that look poised to become all-time greats in their own right. But that’s not always the case for every team.

Sans Harvick, SHR’s 2023 Cup roster has a combined four wins. Chase Briscoe proved to be the team’s emerging star driver in 2022, as he scored his first career win at Phoenix and led 280 laps in his sophomore Cup season. Aric Almirola has scored two wins in five seasons at SHR, but his future with the team is uncertain after the expiration of his contract, which goes through 2023 with a driver option for 2024. Cole Custer was demoted to SHR’s NASCAR Xfinity Series team following subpar 2021 and 2022 Cup seasons, and Ryan Preece will take his place in the No. 41 for 2023.

SHR’s Xfinity lineup will consist of Custer, who will compete for his first Xfinity championship after runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019. He will be joined by the returning Riley Herbst, who showed considerable improvement in 2022 but has yet to win a Xfinity race in two full seasons with the team’s No. 98 car.

But even with the rise of Briscoe, the mystique surrounding Preece’s first season and the possibility to promote Custer or Herbst, they alone won’t be enough to fill the hole left by Harvick. In reality, there are very few drivers out there that would fit the bill.

To find a replacement for the No. 4 car in 2024, SHR can either hire from within or look outward to free agents. Even then, there aren’t many drivers up for grabs.

Elliott, Larson, William Byron, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney all have long-term contracts and aren’t going anywhere. Kyle Busch and Tyler Reddick are debuting for new teams and aren’t expected to leave. Denny Hamlin now co-owns a Toyota team while Brad Keselowski serves as an owner-driver for RFK Racing. Martin Truex Jr.’s future with Joe Gibbs Racing beyond 2023 is uncertain, but there’s a chance he may choose to call it a career as well. And due to recent ambiguity of contract extensions, it’s unknown how many drivers are even on the market for 2024.

But SHR’s mission to find a replacement is simple: sweeten the pot and create a huge offer for any star driver that has an unknown contract status. Picking up another star or rising star in the Cup Series to pair alongside Briscoe is the best chance that SHR has in creating the foundations for a post-Harvick landscape.

If SHR whiffs or is unable to find a solid replacement, it’s in danger of losing its status toward the top of NASCAR hierarchy. The Harvick-Childers pairing alone made SHR an elite team in the 2010s, as the duo was going head-to-head for NASCAR supremacy alongside fellow juggernauts at Hendrick, JGR and Team Penske. SHR isn’t even that far removed from 2018 and 2020, seasons when Harvick and the rest of the lineup were lights-out.

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However, it’s been a different story since 2021. The team has combined to win four races in the last two seasons, a number that’s less than half of Harvick’s win total for the 2020 season alone. Conversely, Penske looks to have leaped SHR for supremacy on top of the Ford totem pole. The team won the 2022 driver’s championship with Logano and the 2022 rookie of the year with Austin Cindric. The trio of Logano, Cindric and Blaney has combined to win nine races for Penske since the start of 2021.

SHR’s slip in the standings will only be exacerbated by the retirement of Harvick. And that’s not the only question mark, either. The attention also turns toward the future of Childers. SHR could either pair him with a new driver or move him to a different role within in the organization. Of course, that’s assuming that Childers — a crew chief with 604 Cup races under his belt — would want to continue working after the retirement of his most successful driver.

2023 will be a year of remembering and celebrating SHR’s past, but the team shouldn’t lose sight of 2024. The team should celebrate the final 36 races for Harvick, but it can’t afford to fall behind in finding a suitable replacement either. Because the more that SHR lives in its past, the more it will lose sight of its future.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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DoninAjax

Someone who will cost them the least amount of money.

Christopher

Think it is more likely SHR will contract to a 3 car team

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