Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: The Worst Slump of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Existence?

Did You Notice? … Front Row Motorsports became the third Ford organization to win a NASCAR Cup Series race this season? Stewart-Haas Racing can only watch with envy.

That’s right; Michael McDowell clinched a playoff spot for FRM at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, giving Blue Oval teams three straight victories overall at the Cup level for the first time since 2020. Suddenly, a manufacturer who’s lagged behind Chevrolet and Toyota all season is peaking at the right time, producing a handful of dark horse title contenders.

But there’s one name still missing from the winner’s section at Ford these days: Stewart-Haas Racing. The four-car organization represents more than 25% of the manufacturer’s full-time teams and is just three years removed from a dominant regular season performance by Kevin Harvick. Harvick’s nine wins in 2020 set a NASCAR record for a driver age 44 and older, earning the regular season title by a whopping 115 points over his closest competition that year.

See also
Only Yesterday: Michael McDowell Broke Record From 1st-Ever NASCAR Race

Now? There’s a possibility SHR won’t earn even one postseason bid. Harvick appears the safest, sixth in the standings with the most points among winless drivers. But he’s just two points ahead of Brad Keselowski in a season that already has 13 playoff-eligible winners.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a desperate Chase Elliott wins at Watkins Glen International, arguably his best racetrack, followed by another Daytona Cinderella story. That would push the number of winners to 15 and leave Harvick and Keselowski mano-e-mano for the final spot. Just ask Martin Truex Jr. how quickly the bubble can crumble around you; he missed the playoffs last season despite finishing fourth in the regular season standings.

Even if Harvick qualifies in his final full-time Cup season, he’s unlikely to have any SHR cars alongside. His trio of teammates have all entered win-or-else territory with the next-best driver in the standings, Aric Almirola, some 154 points behind the last spot on the playoff bubble. Almirola, Ryan Preece and Chase Briscoe don’t have a single Cup road course victory among them, meaning their efforts are geared toward Daytona desperation territory. Even then, an upset could potentially knock out their own retiring teammate (and a driver much better positioned to advance in the playoffs).

How bad has it gotten for SHR? Their primary up-and-coming talent, Briscoe, is in front of just a single full-time driver (Ty Dillon) in the standings after a crippling 120-point penalty for a counterfeit part discovered at the Coca-Cola 600 Memorial Day Weekend. Rick Ware Racing, employing a driver merry-go-round this season, is the lone Ford team lower in the owner standings than Briscoe’s No. 14.

Here’s a closer look at the overall breakdown within Ford’s program in 2023.

Ford TeamDriversWinsTop 5sTop 10sLaps LedPlayoff Drivers
Team Penske3211256122
RFK Racing2210204822
Front Row Motorsports21210781
Stewart-Haas Racing4010204581
Wood Brothers1002200
Rick Ware Racing200210

As you can see, SHR has as many top-10 finishes as RFK Racing, a team with half the number of full-time teams and roughly half the budget. It’s been a slow, steady decline over the past few seasons after Harvick was on the precipice of a second championship in 2020.

Stewart-Haas Racing: Last 5 Seasons

YearWinsTop 5sTop 10sLaps LedPlayoff Apps.
2019429671,4373 (Harvick Championship 4)
20201030642,1214 (Harvick 5th)
2021112342952 (Harvick 5th)
2022317374952 (Briscoe 9th)
202301020458??

What’s scary for SHR is 15 of the 18 wins during this stretch have come from Harvick alone. Even now, at age 47, the 2014 champion has a level of performance two-to-three steps higher than the rest of the team; his average finish in 2023 is over six positions better than anyone else on the roster. And he’s been doing it at less than 100%; Harvick revealed at Indianapolis he’s been racing most of this summer with broken ribs after falling down a flight of steps in June.

Rookie Josh Berry will replace Harvick in 2024, and he’s not exactly coming in hot; Berry remains winless thus far this NASCAR Xfinity Series season with JR Motorsports. Looking ahead, Almirola is likely to join Harvick on the sidelines, retiring and potentially taking primary sponsor Smithfield along with him. That isn’t the only financial support drying up; it was already announced Anheuser-Busch is leaving at the end of the season and sponsoring Ross Chastain starting next year.

Meanwhile, Preece came in with high expectations, replacing an underperforming Cole Custer who went over two years without a top-five finish in Cup. But 24 races in, Preece has an average finish 1.4 positions worse than Custer last year and has failed to make the No. 41 car more competitive. Stewart is highly supportive of the Modified champion but the future remains unclear: remember, Cole is the son of SHR Chief Operating Officer Joe Custer.

Then, there’s Briscoe, who simply looks lost on all the oval tracks this summer. He has yet to lead a lap after a crew chief swap midseason from Johnny Klausmeier to Richard Boswell. Keep in mind that’s supposed to be SHR’s driver of the future.

See also
Dropping the Hammer: Despite Limited Resources, Indy Win Not 'Cinderella' Moment for Michael McDowell

It’s a fall from grace one would never have expected from an organization that made five of the first six Championship 4s with Harvick. The question is where the focus is going to be to turn this program around. Both Gene Haas (Formula 1) and Stewart (NHRA, SRX) are busy in other areas of motorsports. Former SHR President Brett Frood was a big loss on the sponsorship side, leaving in the summer of 2022 to take a position as commissioner of the National Lacrosse League.

Let’s say Almirola retires after 2023 and is replaced by someone like Riley Herbst. It would leave the organization with two rookies and one lone Cup win heading into next season: Briscoe’s at Phoenix Raceway way back in March 2022. SHR has some of the best mechanical minds in the business but even Rodney Childers (Harvick’s current crew chief) and Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli will have trouble working through that.

The beauty of the Next Gen chassis, at least, is that no team can ever fall hopelessly behind. Berry showed promise in extended substitute roles with Hendrick Motorsports, posting a runner-up finish at Richmond Raceway, and could click immediately with Childers. Perhaps SHR finds a way to sign Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith and bring more buzz back to their program.

But make no mistake, SHR is in the worst rut statistically and emotionally since Tony Stewart bought into Gene Haas’ team in 2009. Even during their worst season (2013) the organization cobbled together two wins and 11 top-five finishes. How and when will they start digging themselves out?

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • Here’s all the drivers who have won a road course race since Chase Elliott last visited victory lane on one: Kyle Larson, A.J. Allmendinger, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Martin Truex Jr., Shane van Gisbergen and McDowell. At what point is the bloom off the rose?
  • He won’t make the playoffs, barring a miracle Daytona win, but Ty Gibbs has quietly put together a respectable rookie season over at Joe Gibbs Racing. He earned a win moonlighting in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Indianapolis and has four straight top-15 finishes on the Cup side. Most importantly, a young driver known for flashing his temper and creating personality conflicts has rebuilt respect both on and off the racetrack.

Follow @NASCARBowles on Twitter (X)

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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janice

we’ve now learned harvick has been racing hurt…..i just wonder about a leader at stewart haas. tony busy with nhra. i wonder how ford feels about the mopar tie with stewart.

will there need to be a transfusion of new blood like keslowski did at rousch?

i think josh berry will do ok. he does have some seat time in this car from being super-sub this year. people will just have to remember that he will be rookie in the cup series next year, and there is a learning curve, longer races and the incredibly long season.

Bill B

Yes! Anyone who has been paying attention has noticed SHR’s struggles.

Kevin in SoCal

I guess it wasn’t Custer but the car? Same with Almirola and Briscoe?

JT

SHR really missed a golden opportunity to win & make the Playoffs at Martinsville. Preece’s #41 Ford was the car to beat when it unloaded from the trailer. He dominated the first half of the race. But later, Preece had a pit road miscue that put him back in traffic and he never was able to get back to the front.

SHR could not replicate their “secret sauce” at Richmond, the other paved short track in the regular season. They also were bad at the road/street tracks, unlucky at the Super speedways and were not competitive at the intermediates.

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