Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Stewart-Haas Penalty Part of Larger Issue for the Team

On May 31, NASCAR levied possibly the greatest penalty to one singular driver and his team, short of revoking a charter, and the overall biggest (unappealed/upheld) penalty since Spingate in 2013.

Chase Briscoe’s No. 14 team was issued an L3 penalty after his car was taken to NASCAR’s R&D center following the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The team was penalized a whopping 120 driver and owner points and a staggering 25 playoff points. Briscoe’s crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier, gets a six-week vacation by virtue of suspension, and the team was fined an unbelievable $250,000. The offense? A counterfeit underwing. Not a modified underwing — counterfeit.

This is Stewart-Haas Racing’s second post-race penalty of 2023 (Aric Almirola had two crew members suspended after Phoenix Raceway for an improperly attached wheel). SHR has announced it will not appeal the penalty.

The penalty is insult to injury, as all four SHR cars struggled hard at Charlotte, with all four drivers running outside the top 30 at one point. Eventually, Kevin Harvick’s team found some speed and ultimately finished 11th. Ryan Preece finished two spots behind him in 13th, while Briscoe and Almirola finished 20th and 25th, respectively.

But this penalty is just the latest part of a greater issue at SHR, one that involves several penalties within the last year, a frustrated team owner and overall poor performance.

After the fall playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway in 2022, Harvick’s car was penalized for an illegal modification of a single-source supplied part, and the team was fined $100,000 and docked 100 driver and owner points. Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, was suspended four races. The L2 penalty was similar to what other drivers and their teams have received, such as Brad Keselowski and Michael McDowell.

Two weeks later, the team was penalized again, this time for the No. 41, which was driven at that time by Cole Custer. The penalty was for alleged race manipulation, as Custer was told by his crew chief, Mike Shiplett, to check up due to “a flat tire.” However, it was found that Custer intentionally brake-checked Austin Dillon and Erik Jones to allow Briscoe to gain additional points to move into the Round of 8.

NASCAR penalized Custer’s team 50 driver and owner points, fined Custer and Shiplett $100,000 apiece, and the latter was suspended indefinitely.

SHR appealed both penalties, but eventually dropped the Harvick appeal. At the time, team co-owner Tony Stewart (who was in the FOX booth at Charlotte, witnessing his cars suffer in performance firsthand) was so irate that he told the Associated Press that he would not go to another race for the rest of 2022 season if it weren’t for appearance obligations.

Fast forward to 2023, and now the team has been hit with a massive penalty that puts Briscoe outside of the top 30 in driver points. Briscoe is now all but in a must-win situation if he wants a shot at the playoffs this season.

See also
SHR No. 14 Team Penalized Following Charlotte

Which leads to the next problem: SHR is not winning.

The team has just four wins since the 2020 season, when Harvick won nine races and arguably should have been the champion. Its lone win in 2021 came courtesy of Almirola, who won a darkness-shortened race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The team rebounded for three wins in 2022, with Briscoe getting his first (and to date only) career win at Phoenix in the spring and Harvick snapping his winless drought by winning back-to-back races at Michigan International Speedway and Richmond Raceway.

But since then, nothing. The team hasn’t won in 26 races, which isn’t exactly abnormal, but the issue is the team hasn’t really found itself in contention for the win very often. This season, Harvick was on pace to win Phoenix, the track where he is most dominant, before a late caution came out and gave William Byron an overtime victory. Harvick then finished second to Byron at Darlington Raceway, but Harvick wouldn’t have been that high in the running order if it weren’t for a bunch of the leaders crashing themselves out of the race.

However, Harvick’s looming retirement at the end of 2023 leaves SHR in a much more precarious position then really anyone has thought. The last multi-win season for an SHR driver NOT named Kevin Harvick came courtesy of Clint Bowyer in 2018 with two, one of which was a rain-shortened race. Before Bowyer, the last multi-win season for SHR minus Harvick came at the hands of Kurt Busch all the way back in 2015.

SHR’s NASCAR Xfinity Series program isn’t much better. Since Briscoe moved up to the Cup Series in 2021 following Bowyer’s retirement, Riley Herbst has driven the No. 98 ever since, and hasn’t won a single race. He opened the 2023 season with six straight top 10s but failed to finish inside the top 20 the next five races. At Charlotte, he only managed a 14th-place finish.

Meanwhile, Custer returned to the Xfinity Series following his demotion after 2022, and while the No. 00 has seven top 10s, including six straight, Custer hasn’t shown race-winning speed.

Much like the Cup Series, SHR’s Xfinity program has fallen off dramatically. The last time SHR won in the Xfinity Series is at Kansas Speedway in 2020, with Briscoe behind the wheel.

It’s time to call it like it is: SHR is in trouble.

While it might be comparing apples to oranges, SHR’s closest parallel is probably Michael Waltrip Racing. MWR struggled to find footing its first few seasons, but when Bowyer joined the team in 2012, the team was immediately elevated to championship contention.

See also
Truckin' Thursdays: Zane Smith, Carson Hocevar Impressing in Upper-Series Starts

Then … Spingate. For its trouble, MWR was hammered with penalties, including 150 combined driver and owner points docked from the teams, $300,000 in fines, and suspended team personnel. The only difference between SHR and MWR is that MWR had a sponsor leave due to the fallout and in turn, Martin Truex Jr. had to be released due to lack of funding.

The biggest thing here is the monetary fine. In the last nine months, SHR has been fined a combined $550,000. While the team is well-funded, it isn’t exactly Hendrick Motorsports- or Joe Gibbs Racing-funded. Besides, half a million is A LOT of money. While SHR likely won’t have any sponsors bounce because of this penalty, it may find itself in sponsor trouble soon.

When Harvick announced his retirement, a rumor circulated that Busch, Harvick’s sponsor, would also leave following 2023 and jump ship to another team; the widely-linked option is Ross Chastain and Trackhouse Racing. Along with this, Almirola, who originally was supposed to retire after 2022, ended up signing an agreement to keep racing with Smithfield as his sponsor.

It was a surprising move, after the 2023 silly season put Almirola’s vacant No. 10 at the forefront of everyone’s radar (Kyle Busch was rumored to take the ride, but once he signed with Richard Childress Racing, some moved to speculating Preece taking that ride; he would eventually replace Custer in the No. 41). But the move for Almirola to return could be linked to Smithfield returning. Smithfield has sponsored Almirola since 2012. It’s very possible that when Almirola leaves the sport, which could be as soon as at the end of this season, Smithfield goes too.

That would leave SHR to find two drivers and two sponsors. Not ideal. Xfinity driver Josh Berry has been linked to taking over Harvick’s No. 4, reports that have since grown since he signed with Harvick’s management company, Kevin Harvick Incorporated. But Berry doesn’t bring any sponsorship unless SHR can snag one of his sponsors from JR Motorsports to come with him.

Meanwhile, Almirola’s No. 10 could be filled by Custer, as he has sponsorship from Haas CNC. However, neither he nor Herbst seem ready to take over the keys to a Cup ride unless they start winning a lot this season.

Losing over half a million dollars combined with the potential loss of two major sponsors casts major doubt over the future of SHR. Downsizing back to three cars seems very possible, and a move like that could refocus efforts back to winning.

Another possibility that could be considered is that SHR could shut down its Xfinity program. If Berry takes over the No. 4 and Custer gets promoted and drives the No. 10, the team might kick Herbst to the curb and shut the program down. After all, Herbst hasn’t won at all in the Xfinity Series and, despite coming close, still can’t get the job done. Even drivers with money get cut if the results aren’t there.

The team may not even have to lose Herbst altogether; he might even get promoted to the Cup Series too, just not with SHR. The team has a technical alliance with Rick Ware Racing, and has worked with RWR to field cars for SHR drivers in the past, including Custer, Herbst and Jenson Button. Herbst could find himself full-time with RWR, and RWR could get full-season support from SHR.

But the fact remains that this most recent penalty is another setback for an already-struggling SHR. The team has struggled to perform, committed two body-related penalties and one race manipulation penalty that has lost it a ton of money over the last few months, and has a team owner who has vocally expressed his displeasure with the sport while increasing his interests outside of it.

And with one driver, maybe two, on their way out at season’s end — with their sponsors possibly leaving with them — the team has to have failsafe options in place to stay afloat. Otherwise, Berry might be joining a sinking ship.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. 

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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Pat S

I always hoped McDowell would get a shot in an SHR car for at least a year..Not so much this year but he does alot with a little..Also if Zane Smith keeps doing what he does hell more of a commodity than anyone else around.

Last edited 1 year ago by Pat S
Echo

Why bring Custer back to Cup !! He hasn’t shown he can win in Xfinity yet. Herbst is the same as Custer. Why keep recycling the same drivers. Try out new talent because they can’t do any worse than what’s happening now.

gbvette

Why bring Custer back to cup? That’s easy, Custer’s going to get all the shots at Cup he wants his father is Joe Custer, the president of SHR.

My question is what underwing did the other three SHR cars have? I have to think all four cars probably had the same illegal parts and SHR is lucky they didn’t catch it at tech or they could be looking at a million in fines, four crew chiefs out for 6 weeks and four cars out of the playoffs, or at best on the edge.

Echo

Tony and Gene didn’t care who his father is when they demoted him out of Cup. I don’t think Tony or Gene are happy with how things are going at SHR. Maybe a management shake up is called for. Yeah, I wonder about the parts on the other cars too. If I was looking for a Cupdriver I would be taking a real good look at Zane Smith . He turns 24 in a week and he’s won in everything he’s raced.

gbvette

From the performance of the SHR, it looks like neither Stewart or Haas care much about the Cup team. Other than when Stewart’s broadcasting, I don’t think either of them show up at the track much. Stewart’s too involved with SRX, Eldora, drag racing, etc, and these days Haas’ main concern is F1.

Custer got a second chance, he was sent down to get more seat time and experience, likely because his father is a team principal. At any other team he probably would have been let go, most other drivers do. If they end up in a lower series it’s with another team, and because it’s the only place they could find a ride, like DiBenedetto.

Kurt Smith

Does anyone remember what the “S” in NASCAR stands for?

Used to be “Stock”, but they should change it to “Spec”.

Yes, the team deserved to be penalized, but again, the penalty is disproportionate, especially when you compare it to the Chase Elliott penalty. NASCAR keeps sending the message that NOTHING is more important to them than their drive for parity and making everyone equal.

Meanwhile, who’s having a good year? For the second year in a row, I really don’t know.

Eric

“disproportionate” is right. If they’d enforced this rule with such severity on the 00s, Johnson would probably only have 2 or 3, instead of 7 Cups.

Bill B

I knew the “S” no longer stood for “stock” but I would have bet it now stood for “suck”.

DoninAjax

Maybe “sucky”? ;)

Eric

I keep wondering if ditching Ford and going back to the Bowtie would be the fix for SHR.
They just haven’t had the performance since switching to Ford, and none of the SHR Fords have ever been good on a restart.

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