Stewart-Haas Racing has experienced a tremendous amount of growth in its relatively short existence. In 2017, the organization will expand once again, this time to the XFINITY Series. News broke on Monday that the team would field a single-car entry in NASCAR’s second-tier division next season with driver and sponsorship details announced later this year.
The formation of an NXS team adds another project to what will be a busy offseason for Tony Stewart and Gene Haas. SHR is already planning a manufacturer switch to Ford and will have all-new equipment next year. Just like the alliance with Ford, the team clearly enters the XFINITY Series with an eye on the future. Both Stewart and Greg Zipadelli, SHR’s Vice President of competition, expressed the desire to have a program for developing drivers and other team members, and SHR’s XFINITY team should do just that.
Moreover, the creation of this team is another indication that there is a renewed interest in NASCAR for young drivers. The youth movement in the sport has not reached the levels that it did 20 or 15 years ago, during the height of the search for the next Jeff Gordon, but pathways to the Sprint Cup Series are opening after a long period of little driver turnover. Most of the major organizations, along with their satellites, are engaging in an arms race to scoop up as many young prospects as possible. In Stewart-Haas’ case, the team has benefited from a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports and its ties to other Chevrolet teams. However, that relationship ends in 2017. It therefore makes sense for SHR to take control of its own developmental program, even if it means a lot more work for the team.
In the meantime, the biggest question is which driver (or drivers) will race SHR’s XFINITY car next year. Cole Custer appears to be the obvious choice. Gene Haas fielded a part-time team in the Camping World Truck Series for Custer in 2014. Custer’s father, Joe, is also SHR’s Executive Vice President. However, JR Motorsports has really taken over Custer’s development since 2015. he is currently running his first full-time Truck Series season, and has also made three NXS appearances for JRM this year. Once Stewart-Haas and JR Motorsports go their separate ways at the end of this year, what happens to Custer? There has not been any clear indication, at this point, as to which team he would go to. In fact, with only 30 Truck Series races under his belt, Custer may not even be ready to make the jump to the XFINITY Series in the first place.
The driver decision will ultimately be a reflection of what SHR hopes to accomplish in the first year. If Stewart and Haas want consistency within the team and a chance to race for the championship, they will pick one driver for the full season. In that case, Custer would probably be at the top of their list. Otherwise, SHR could try to lure away a different driver from their current team. Stewart has an affinity for drivers who share his dirt-racing background. Could the team make a play for someone like Christopher Bell or Rico Abreu?
It is also possible that the team could forgo its championship hopes and split the car among several drivers. Custer could still be part of that plan, but sponsorship may depend on having a Cup driver run some of the races. Kevin Harvick has run several NXS races with JR Motorsports each year since joining Stewart-Haas. He could make some appearances in the new SHR XFINITY car if he (and the sponsors) is interested. Perhaps the Haas Formula 1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez could give NASCAR a try, probably in one of the road course events.
Either way, having another well-funded car in the XFINITY Series will be a good thing for NASCAR’s second-tier division. A new team means new job opportunities and the potential to introduce a new sponsor into the sport. SHR is also likely to contend for wins and would probably be a shoe-in for a Chase spot if the team decides to use one driver. The only real downside would be if a Sprint Cup driver wound up running most of the races. That is not meant as a knock against Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick or Clint Bowyer. Any Cup driver paired up with a Cup organization is going to exacerbate the XFINITY Series’ competition problem.
At this point, Stewart and the rest of his team appear to be committed to developing new talent, including drivers. Using a Sprint Cup driver for half or more of the races would only hurt the organization’s potential to prepare for the future of the Cup team. So it is more likely than not that SHR will put the focus of its XFINITY program on prospects.
The 2017 season will be the greatest test yet of how well Stewart-Haas stacks up against NASCAR’s old order of long-time owners like Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress, Penske and Roush. SHR has already had a lot of success thus far, winning two of the last five Sprint Cups. Do not be surprised if the team adds an XFINITY title someday.
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