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Up to Speed: 2024 Sink or Swim for Stewart-Haas Racing

The beginning of a new NASCAR season signals a fresh start for every team on the grid.

For Stewart-Haas Racing, that fresh start must feel like a welcome relief.

The organization staggered through a disastrous 2023, a season that ended with the retirements of superstar Kevin Harvick and veteran Aric Almirola. Taking over the No. 4 car from Harvick is Josh Berry, who previously competed with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. Noah Gragson gets the No. 10 from Almirola, joining SHR after a nightmarish rookie season with Legacy Motor Club.

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The rest of the team’s lineup remains unchanged with Chase Briscoe in the No. 14 and Ryan Preece in the No. 41. It is a much younger and less experienced quartet racing for Tony Stewart and Gene Haas this year, and a lot of questions remain about this team’s future. 

SHR went through a rebranding of sorts during the offseason, casting its drivers as hardscrabble grassroots racers who compete with grit and determination. Stewart himself has also been vocal in recent weeks about the team’s poor performance in 2023, insisting that similar results this year will be unacceptable.

Yet for all of Stewart’s comments about whipping his team into shape, it is not clear how SHR can reverse the downward spiral that the organization has been on for the last three years. In addition to losing Harvick and Almirola, the team also lost major sponsors like Busch Beer and Smithfield. The departure of those longtime backers, combined with the absence of a true veteran driver, is a serious blow to a team that has already been struggling.

Among the drivers racing for SHR in 2024, Briscoe is the only one with a victory. His lone Cup Series win came nearly two years ago at Phoenix Raceway, a win that served as a springboard for his entry into the 2022 playoffs. Briscoe performed admirably in the postseason, clawing his way to the third round and nearly stealing a win at Martinsville Speedway that would have put him into the championship race.

The 2023 season was a much different story. After the Coca-Cola 600, the No. 14 team got slapped with an L3 level 120-point penalty for counterfeiting a single-supplier part. Until that time, Briscoe had been on the cusp of a playoff spot, but the massive penalty effectively placed him in win or bust territory during the second half of the regular season. The No. 14 team never came close to winning before or during the playoffs, even after Briscoe was reunited with Richard Boswell, his former Xfinity Series crew chief. If Briscoe and Boswell cannot recapture the magic they once had, it could be another long year for the No. 14.

Much like Briscoe, Preece is probably eager to leave 2023 far behind. He scored only two top 10s all year and, aside from Martinsville, did not show race-winning speed anywhere. Preece came into the SHR fold last year, replacing Cole Custer in the No. 41, whose growth as a Cup Series driver appeared to have stagnated after winning in his rookie season.

No doubt the team thought that Preece, who had previous Cup Series experience and is still renowned for his success in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, might give the No. 41 car a boost. But while Custer went on to win the Xfinity Series championship for SHR, Preece did not perform any better than Custer did in the No. 41. A year later, it is still not clear what is ailing the No. 41 team.

Briscoe and Preece have their work cut out for them this year, but at least they have some experience competing with SHR. Berry and Gragson are brand new to the team. The good news for Berry is that he will be paired with crew chief Rodney Childers, who was an important part of Harvick’s success with the No. 4 team over the last 10 years.

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In addition, Berry himself was no slouch in the Xfinity Series. He scored five wins over the last three years with JR Motorsports and made the Xfinity championship race in 2022. When Berry has gotten quality opportunities, he has performed well. But the Cup Series is a whole new ballgame, especially when tasked with filling the shoes of someone like Harvick. Only time will tell if he is up to the challenge.

The last piece of the puzzle for SHR is Gragson in the No. 10. Much like the driver himself, it’s hard to predict what will happen next with this pairing. Gragson’s rookie campaign with LMC lasted 21 races before he was suspended by NASCAR for liking a controversial social media post. The suspension prompted Gragson to ask for his release from the team, and his future in NASCAR remained in limbo until the deal with SHR came together.

Much like Berry, Gragson had success with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, especially after getting a year’s experience. If he follows the same pattern, he could still be a capable Cup Series driver. But the often impulsive Gragson will still have to do some maturing on and off the track to ensure his place in NASCAR.

Perhaps SHR’s rebrand was not too far from the truth. Briscoe, Preece, Berry and Gragson all come into 2024 with something to prove, and all of them can help lead the team to a better future. Yet regardless of its driver lineup, SHR has to figure out why the organization’s cars have been so slow for the last three years. There were too many instances last year where the team’s drivers had to fight their way forward from the back of the pack, if they were able to move forward at all.

Indeed, SHR is starting to look like Roush Fenway Racing did about 10 years ago. After the departures of Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, Roush’s team went into a downward spiral. The cars got slower, the drivers hired to replace Kenseth and Edwards could not pull the team forward, and RFR ceased to be a regular contender for wins. Only in recent years, after Brad Keselowski came onboard as a part-owner, has Roush’s team managed to get back on track.

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If SHR wants to avoid descending into irrelevancy, it will need to make changes behind the scenes. It is one thing for Stewart to publicly say that the team must perform better, but reorganizing the team’s personnel to make sure that each car is competitive is much more difficult and will require some deeper thinking on Stewart’s and Haas’ parts.

SHR is entering a pivotal season and it will need its young drivers to step up. But the level of support that the drivers have from the team around them will be the true factor in determining whether SHR sinks or swims in 2024.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of 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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Rich

Hire Ross Chastain he would fit great with Tonys team

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