Race Weekend Central

Who Should Replace Kevin Harvick & How Vital It Is to Stewart-Haas Racing

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you need a team.” – John Wooden.

While the above quote may not be directed at racing, it certainly does apply to it. In many, many situations in life, leadership is needed. Teamwork is healthy. And goals are just the path to put it all together.

Kevin Harvick has emerged as the leader of two organizations: Stewart-Haas Racing and the Ford banner. His leadership has brought both parties success after success.

From being a combustible young gun to a crafty veteran who hasn’t lost his passion, Harvick has emerged as both a voice for drivers, the face of SHR and a leader for the blue oval.

But as is destined to happen in our sport, there is a time when the leader is ready to pass the torch. Such will be the case when Harvick makes his final lap at Phoenix Raceway in November.

The problem is, who will that torch be passed on to?

Looking at SHR, the elephant in the room is the fact that when you look past Harvick, there is a dramatic drop-off in success.

Look at 2023 alone through seven races. Ford has seven teams in the top 20 in points. All three Team Penske drivers are 14th or better. Both RFK Racing drivers are inside the top 15. And Michael McDowell represents Front Row Motorsports in 18th.

Then there is Stewart-Haas. Harvick is fifth in points and has looked like a title contender thus far. He has four top 10s and three top fives. After him, you have to go to 21st, 27th, and 28th to find Chase Briscoe, Aric Almirola and Ryan Preece.

None of those three have a top 10 so far. It wouldn’t be outrageous to say that outside of Harvick, SHR is the fourth-best Ford team right now.

That’s hard to believe given that Briscoe made it to the Round of 8 last year and Almirola made the playoffs every year from 2018-2021.

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So where do they go from here?

Briscoe would be the inevitable leader of the pack if they were to sign a younger driver. But inconsistency and slumps continue to plague the third-year driver.

We know Tony Stewart has a specific criteria when he searches for talent. For example, he wanted Preece in the No. 41 car this season while co-owner Gene Haas wanted Cole Custer to get another year. Obviously, Stewart won out.

Another crucial detail is the fact that long-time Harvick and SHR partner Anheuser-Busch could be heading elsewhere.

Bringing in someone without funding may not be what Haas and Stewart want, considering they have had to face that situation several times. Just look at the No. 41 being sponsored by Haas companies for several years or the uncertainty of what happens if Smithfield leaves with Almirola.

The pool of potential candidates is quite compelling.

First, SHR could promote some lower-level drivers. Riley Herbst is with the team in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, but despite improvements in his third season with the team, he has yet to win. It doesn’t seem likely that the team would immediately call Custer back to their flagship ride.

There is also Hailie Deegan, but given she has only made one Xfinity start and has four top 10s in 51 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series starts, it would be extremely risky to promote her that quickly.

Zane Smith would likely be the most intriguing option from a lower division. The reigning Truck champion has made three Cup starts and has nine Truck wins. He is likely a leading candidate for the ride.

Then there are Cup veterans who may look for a change of scenery.

One of the highly-favored drivers mentioned by fans is Spire Motorsports driver Corey LaJoie. Synonymous with his “stacking pennies” mantra, LaJoie has been on a grinding journey to earn a top-level ride. With four top 15s in inferior equipment to begin the season, has he caught the attention of Gene and Smoke?

Perhaps a quiet possibility surrounds Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The 2023 Daytona 500 champion has never truly gotten a chance to prove his worth in the Cup Series. He joined RFK as the team sunk to the lowest of lows in their history. Since 2020, he has been with JTG Daugherty Racing, a team who has lacked the resources of powerhouse teams.

He may be on a multi-year contract with JTG Daugherty, but crazier things have happened. And would you look at that, he is represented by Harvick’s management firm, KHI Management.

What about Erik Jones? The 26-year-old looked as if he might execute a Joey-Logano-like renaissance after closing out 2022 with Legacy Motor Club (then Petty GMS) on a high note. But seven races into the season, Legacy has looked like anything but a contender. Jones is too talented to not be competing for wins, and he may be looking for a change of scenery if the season continues like it has so far.

There is another Ford driver who could be a puzzle piece in this too. Chris Buescher has proven that he belongs behind the wheel of a Cup car. The RFK Racing driver earned the team its first non-superspeedway win in nearly a decade at Bristol Motor Speedway back in September. Given that RFK looks like a playoff contender right now and Buescher continues to progress in his career, he may not see it as a step up. However, being the face of a championship organization co-owned by Tony Stewart could be attractive.

However, each leading silly season ride usually has a wild card candidate. And the No. 4 certainly has a fresh one on the press.

After making his debut at Circuit of the Americas, 2009 Formula 1 champion Jenson Button has expressed interest in running full-time at the Cup level.

Button finished 18th in his debut, driving for Rick Ware Racing with support from SHR. Could he have a legitimate shot at replacing Harvick? It certainly should not be ignored.

The 43-year-old is associated with Mobil 1, a long-time supporter of SHR. Sure, he may have a very brief notebook from Cup racing, but a racer is a racer, and Button has achieved success in one of motorsports’ highest disciplines of racing.

Think of drivers from outside series who have gone on to compete in Cup full-time. Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Marcos Ambrose and oh, the boss himself in Stewart. Do you think he is afraid to be a little unorthodox in his selection?

You can never count out other potential scenarios. Perhaps another driver hits the market this summer that no one saw coming. Todd Gilliland will likely be on the market this offseason. Or given SHR’s recent struggles and sponsorship questions, maybe they downsize to three cars.

However, excluding any downsizing, we are looking at a new driver of the No. 4 in 2024. Who could that be, or more so, who should that be?

Aside from Almirola, both Briscoe and Preece have less than five seasons in a Cup car. SHR needs a veteran presence with clear leadership who will compete at high level right off the bat. That scratches any potential rookie off the list.

Button would certainly bring exposure and sponsorship. But he is 43 and would he be the best fit to replace the team’s patriarch driver? Now, if Almirola hangs it up soon, then Button would be a favorite for that ride.

You can find a lot of upside in any of the other four drivers mentioned. LaJoie would finally get a chance to shine after proving himself in underfunded equipment. We would finally get to see if Stenhouse would be a 2011-2012 version of himself. Jones could get the opportunity to become a title contender like we saw with Logano at Penske. And though it is hard to see Buescher leave RFK, he would likely be that instant leader if he were to take the reins of the No. 4.

No matter who gets the ride, SHR could be in a desperate situation. They need to get all four cars on the same page and at least two or three back in title contention. It all points back to who that crafty veteran is who will provide support and the right feedback. And Ford will need that next driver aside from Logano and Brad Keselowski who will step up and be a perennial contender for wins and titles.

Silly season may be getting an early start this year.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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germancarsonly

I have watched Zane Smith from his early days and he has lots of talent. I bet he gets the #4 ride. At least one of the other three should be cut loose to make room for Button.

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