Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Kevin Harvick Is Still Carrying Stewart-Haas Racing

Three races into the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, Stewart-Haas Racing is off to a tough start. After all four of its drivers crashed in the Daytona 500, the organization has struggled to find speed for the last two weeks. This past weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was another slog for the SHR with Chase Briscoe, Aric Almirola and Ryan Preece all failing to finish in the top 10. But in a familiar pattern, Kevin Harvick led the charge for the four-car team and clawed his way to a ninth-place finish.

Harvick announced during the offseason that 2023 would be his last year as a full-time Cup Series driver. He will conclude a 23-year run at NASCAR’s highest level, the last 10 of which will be with SHR. For most of that time, Harvick has been the organization’s standard bearer. To date, he has racked up 37 wins and a championship in the No. 4 car. Those numbers include 21 wins from 2018-2020 – a three-year stretch when SHR had a legitimate claim to being the best team in NASCAR.

That period of dominance ended abruptly in 2021. That year, the spring race at Las Vegas turned out to be a harbinger for the difficult season that laid ahead. Harvick started on the pole per NASCAR’s post-Covid metric qualifying rules, only to plummet through the field. Briscoe and Cole Custer fared no better, and Almirola crashed out of the race during the third stage. Harvick’s 20th-place result was the best the team could do.

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The 2021 season went on to include more of the same struggles for SHR, especially on the intermediate tracks. Harvick went winless for the first time since 2009 and did not advance beyond the second round of the elimination-style playoffs for the first time ever. Yet that was still a much better result than the rest of the team. Almirola snuck into the playoffs with a win but was quickly eliminated during the first round. Briscoe and Custer did not earn a single top five all year. Even in a highly disappointing season, Harvick was still a cut above his teammates.

Sunday’s race at Las Vegas brought back too many memories of that rough outing two years ago. The biggest difference was that Harvick was able to run around 10th for most of the afternoon and secure a decent finish. Otherwise, the race was a disaster for SHR. Almirola had a good result in sight before spinning out on lap 264, setting up an overtime restart. Preece, who took over the No. 41 from Custer this year, was already a lap down when he got collected in a last-lap crash. Briscoe was slow from the drop of the green flag to the end of the race, falling two laps down due to lack of pace alone. With finishes of 16th, 23rd, and 28th respectively, Almirola, Preece and Briscoe had a day to forget.

Unfortunately for Stewart-Haas, the bad finishes are starting to stack up. Preece and Briscoe are 31st and 32nd in points. Almirola is 21st, buoyed by his qualifying race win at Daytona International Speedway but without a top-15 finish in a regular season race so far. On the other hand, Harvick is third in overall points with two top 10s and a 12th-place finish. He is the only SHR driver anywhere near championship contention.

As concerning as things seem for Stewart-Haas right now, the team could be in even deeper trouble next year. Once Harvick retires, what is the future of this organization? Harvick is the only one on the team who has proven that he can be a weekly contender. Without him, can SHR regain its form from 2018-2020?

Almirola was a key part of the organization’s past success. He made the playoffs every year from 2018-2021. Moreover, even when Almirola lacked race-winning speed, he would typically bring the car home in one piece.

Yet Almirola cannot be a long-term solution for Stewart-Haas. He announced his own retirement prior to last season only to reverse course and sign on with SHR for at least two more years. Besides, Almirola scored a combined 12 top 10s from 2021-2022 after earning 18 alone in 2020. He may be a valuable veteran presence on the team, but Almirola cannot carry SHR on his back like Harvick can.

Preece is still an unknown quantity in the Cup Series. The former Modified Series star has shown flashes of potential in the lower divisions when given opportunities with good teams. However, Preece’s first try in the Cup Series with JTG Daugherty Racing was a struggle. In three seasons, he scored only nine top 10s total, and his best finish in points was 26th. You would think that Preece has a higher ceiling in Stewart-Haas equipment, but it is still not clear if he will ever be the type of driver who can elevate a team with his own ability.

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As for Briscoe, the No. 14 team’s biggest problem is still slow cars off the truck. This issue haunted Briscoe throughout 2022, who often seemed to battle ill-handling cars early in the race and seldom collected stage points purely on speed. Even though the No. 14 team won a race and had a surprising run through the playoffs last year, Briscoe frequently had to fight his way through the pack with cars that were not at the level of his competition.

Briscoe is going to be a bigger part of SHR’s future. The Indiana native signed a multi-year contract earlier this year and has been gaining more sponsorship over the last few seasons. Perhaps more importantly, Briscoe demonstrated an ability during last year’s playoffs to grind his way to good finishes. He will have to find that magic again in 2023 to turn his season around.

The trouble is that Briscoe cannot carry a team with the level of consistency that Harvick does, at least not yet. Stewart-Haas may be inclined to find another veteran to replace Harvick as Briscoe continues to develop. Until then, the organization will have to find a way to avoid a repeat of 2021. SHR has never had a season where it was completely shut out of the playoffs, and chances are that won’t happen this year while Harvick is still around. But once Harvick hangs up his helmet, the future of Stewart-Haas will hinge on finding a new path forward.  

About the author

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Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong student of auto racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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