Riley Herbst has been one of the few bright spots of Stewart-Haas Racing’s NASCAR Xfinity Series teams over the last couple of seasons.
Until recently, that is, as the last eight weeks for Herbst and company have been pure hell. The highest finish for the No. 98 Ford Mustang team was 14th at Charlotte in that span and marked one of the worst average finish stretches of Herbst’s Xfinity career up to that point.
That changed this past Saturday (June 24) when Herbst and his new crew chief, Davin Restivo, managed to bring home a second-place finish in their first ever pairing, not even one week after meeting each other.
You’d be forgiven for not picking up on it, but do you see that caption?
“Earned, not given.” Herbst said that phrase in every single post-race interview I can find, including this one with Darian Gilliam and other members of the media.
That phrase stuck out to some of us here at Frontstretch, because if you were paying attention a few weeks ago, Tony Stewart said this in the press conference that announced Josh Berry as the driver for the No. 4 NASCAR Cup Series car going forward.
“I’m not interested in some kid’s father coming and buying their way into the Cup Series,” Stewart said. “I have zero interest in that. We want guys that earn their way, that work hard and understand the values it takes to be a top tier driver.”
Now, put yourself in Herbst’s shoes. You’ve been the lone consistently fast Ford in Xfinity for the last two seasons, and at the worst possible time, when SHR is looking for a replacement for the No. 4 car, you have the worst stretch of your young career. In a business where the motto is “what have you done for me lately?” that doesn’t help your case.
If Herbst saying “earned” every other sentence after this past week was a shot at the SHR top brass, I think it’s warranted. He’s the top driver that the team has in development. He deserves a chance to move up, I would think.
It’s no secret that Aric Almirola’s best years are behind him, though, and after a tumultuous first half of the 2023 campaign, rumors are flying that Almirola may backtrack and go ahead and retire after all.
Could this be Herbst’s shot? He’s unproven in the Cup Series, that much is a fact, but it can’t be much worse than what Almirola and Ryan Preece are turning out on Sundays now.
If Herbst can somehow find his way into victory lane over the course of the latter half of the season while keeping this speed consistently, I see no reason why he’s not the well-funded, young option that SHR will undoubtedly be looking for at the next level. That’s a long way off, though, and who knows? Saturday could’ve been a one-trick pony.
One thing is for certain, Herbst will indeed have to earn his way forward. Nothing will be given, and that’s probably exactly what Tony Stewart and the rest of the SHR brass want.
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