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Only Yesterday: Back to the Beginning of Stewart-Haas Racing

The shuttering of Stewart-Haas Racing brings an end to one of the powerhouse organizations of the 2010s.

SHR claimed two NASCAR Cup Series titles, one with team co-owner Tony Stewart in 2011 and one with longtime lead driver Kevin Harvick in 2014.

But the team as we knew it might never have existed in the first place if it weren’t for one very seismic event.

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Joe Gibbs Racing had been Stewart’s Cup Series home for the entirety of his career, from 1999-2008. Joe Gibbs began his own Cup journey fielding Chevrolets back in 1992. After six wins over four years, the team switched to Pontiac. That move was followed by the addition of Stewart in a second car for 1999 and the team’s first championship the following season with Bobby Labonte.

Two years later, Stewart himself hoisted the big trophy, earning his first Cup championship in just his fourth full-time season. Up to that time, only Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon had reached the pinnacle in fewer years during the modern era.

Then in 2003, JGR went back to fielding Chevrolets, and Tony didn’t miss a beat. In Stewart’s career, he won at least twice every year that he piloted Gibbs’ GM-powered cars. His second series championship came in 2005, and, years later after Matt Kenseth and Gordon retired, it cemented Stewart as the only driver to win a championship before and after the implementation of a playoff system.

But Gibbs felt like his team, even with all of its success, was still playing second fiddle. Hendrick Motorsports was Chevrolet’s golden goose and Joe knew it. He wanted a manufacturer that was going to make his organization number one. One that all of the developmental drivers would be funneled to. One that needed an established team to lead their pack. A manufacturer like … Toyota.

In 2007, Toyota had a less-than-impressive maiden voyage into NASCAR racing. Depending on who you ask, its flagship team was either Bill Davis Racing or the new Red Bull Racing.

Red Bull seemed to be the face of Toyota, but BDR had better results. Davis’ driver Dave Blaney won the pole for a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and scored a third-place finish in the fall at Talladega Superspeedway. Red Bull’s season high was a fifth-place finish for Brian Vickers in the Coca-Cola 600 in May. This was, however, after Vickers failed to qualify for six of the first 10 races in 2007.

Toyota needed an established competitive team to lead the way. It would buy it some instant legitimacy and bring valuable manpower to help get the other teams out of the proverbial basement. Joe Gibbs Racing looked like a perfect match.

Rumors flew during the summer of 2007 that JGR might jump ship, rumors that Joe and team president JD Gibbs confirmed in an announcement on Sept. 5 of that year. At the press conference, veteran driver Stewart expressed his excitement about the move and reiterated his desire to extend his contract and remain in the No. 20 car.

“I’m excited about this,” Stewart said. “I feel like the only way you constantly stay ahead of the game is by putting yourselves in position to be leaders and not followers. … That’s why I signed up with Joe Gibbs Racing in the first place and why I’m going to extend my contract.”

It was a reassurance that everyone seemed confident in. Except for, perhaps, Stewart himself.

JGR experienced a noticeable shift in 2008, as Kyle Busch surged to score seven wins in the first 19 races. Meanwhile, Stewart finished better than fifth just three times in those same 19 events. Whether Stewart felt that he was being outdone by Busch, uncompetitive in the Toyota or unwilling to cut ties with GM, his desire to renew that contract had evaporated.

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On June 9, 2008, Stewart was granted a release from his contract with JGR and the wheels of what would become Stewart-Haas Racing were set in motion.

Looking back on the whole situation, it’s hard to find anyone involved who didn’t end up better off after the moves were made. Busch picked up two championships in the No. 18 Toyota. Joey Logano got into Cup by sliding into Stewart’s former ride. SHR has 69 Cup Series wins to accompany its pair of titles. Gibbs still has one of the top teams in the sport, despite Logano and Busch moving on at various points.

At the conclusion of 2024, those wheels that began moving with the changes of 16 years ago will come to a stop. But it certainly was an eventful ride.

About the author

frank.velat7

Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

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Drew

Well I’m disappointed that Stewart haas racing is going out of business and I’ve already been in there race shop a few times from 2009-2013.

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