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Did You Notice?: Stewart-Haas Racing at a Crossroads … Just Like Kyle Busch

Did You Notice? … Stewart-Haas Racing announced an executive shakeup Tuesday (Aug. 2)?

Team Co-President Brett Frood, who has been with SHR since 2009, is leaving the company to become the commissioner of National League Lacrosse (NLL). There’s no bad blood between SHR and Frood, whose lifelong passion is lacrosse; he played at Brown University and was a former team captain.

Frood will remain in an advisory role once his tenure with the new job starts Sept. 1. But the in-season departure is just the latest distraction in one of the toughest years this organization has had in NASCAR.

Despite a victory by Chase Briscoe at Phoenix Raceway, it’s conceivable the entire four-car team will end the regular season outside the playoffs. Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Cole Custer sit winless; combined, they’ve led just 20 laps this year.

I’ll let you stop and read that sentence again. Here’s a shortlist of individual drivers who have led 20 NASCAR Cup Series laps this season: Michael McDowell (38), Harrison Burton (20), Justin Haley (20) and Corey LaJoie (20). Those are the depths to which SHR has fallen after winning nine races, the regular season points title and leading over 1,500 laps with Harvick alone just two years ago.

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Up to Speed: Recapping a Pivotal July for the NASCAR Cup Series

Briscoe, of course, is the lone SHR driver who’s shown front-running speed this season. He won Phoenix and nearly added a second victory in the Bristol Dirt Race this April before tangling with Tyler Reddick during the final lap.

Since then, though, the No. 14 team has struggled, posting just one top-10 finish over the last three months while slipping to 16th in points. Briscoe sits just 30 points ahead of an ailing Kurt Busch as the lowest driver on the totem pole with at least one Cup victory; should Busch return this weekend, the possibility exists Briscoe could fall behind him.

To be fair, NASCAR would need three new winners in the last four races for the Briscoe scenario to play out; all of them would need to be above him in points. But the fact this possibility even exists shows how mightily SHR has struggled to get a handle on the sport’s new Next Gen chassis.

Briscoe, at least, appears the most solid brick in what’s become an increasingly shaky foundation. Let’s lay out the scenarios at the other SHR teams, one by one.

Kevin Harvick: A certain Hall of Famer, the 2014 Cup champion has carried this team since Tony Stewart‘s decline during the mid-2010s. He’s done a Herculean job this season working with cars that often don’t have the speed early in races to be competitive. He and crew chief Rodney Childers quietly dial the handling in, at their best during a race’s final stage.

But the winless streak for Harvick now sits at 65 races, his longest in over a decade. He turns age 47 in December, the oldest full-time Cup driver whose contemporaries (Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman) have all moved onto other things. I’d argue he’s more competitive than any of them despite that current drought — remember, Harvick finished a surprising fifth in the standings last year amidst all the adversity — but missing the playoffs feels more Johnson 2019-like than a veteran ready to bounce back.

Signed through the end of 2023, Harvick is a television natural and would be a great fit for whichever network is willing to pay him. There’s nothing left to prove as a driver, every crown jewel earned from Daytona to Charlotte to Darlington to Indianapolis. Son Keelan also turned 10 years old this year and has his own budding racing career to support.

Bottom line, seeing Harvick drive a Cup car in February 2024 feels like a tough ask. February 2025? Feels near impossible.

Aric Almirola: Almirola isn’t even supposed to be with this team beyond this season, announcing his retirement from full-time driving back in February. Since then, the No. 10 team has been its typical mid-pack self, sitting 16th in points with no finish better than fifth in any race. Almirola’s got two top-five finishes (one of them in the season-opening Daytona 500) and has led just one race all year: Atlanta Motor Speedway back in March.

You would think, based on those results, Almirola would be quietly shown the door. Ryan Preece was hired this year as SHR’s reserve driver and has done well in limited roles elsewhere; he won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Nashville Superspeedway in June for the second year in a row. Turning 32 years old in October, Preece has previous Cup full-time experience, a former Modified champion young enough to deserve an extended second chance.

So if Preece is the guy, why not announce him already? Why are there rumors popping up about Almirola doing one more year and cryptic quotes like “never say never?” It’s clear the sponsor relationship is critically important here, and Smithfield may not be sold on anyone else. Gene Haas’ own company, Haas Automation, already backs the majority of one car and throws in a few races on the No. 10. Retaining this backing is crucial to remaining a four-car team.

Cole Custer: Custer, who won Kentucky Speedway back in 2020, was part of a three-driver rookie class that appeared to be NASCAR’s best in over a decade. But while Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick have advanced in their careers, the 24-year-old Custer has taken a giant step backwards.

He hasn’t earned a top-five finish since that Kentucky triumph, a track that isn’t even on the Cup schedule anymore. In fact, the best he’s been able to do over a two-year period in Cup is ninth place. Sitting 25th in the standings, he’s behind underdog drivers like Haley and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and is a whopping 124 points behind his closest teammate.

Those are damning results, although Custer seems to have bounced back a bit in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year (three top-10 finishes in four starts, including a win at Auto Club Speedway back in February). There’s a compelling argument to be made that dropping him back into NXS, a division where he won seven races back in 2019, would rebuild confidence.

If Custer drops down, does that mean Riley Herbst moves up? SHR’s lone development driver is winless in two NXS seasons driving their No. 98, leading just five laps this year with a middling average finish of 13.0. Compare that to Briscoe’s numbers in that car in 2020: nine wins, 1,032 laps led, an average finish of 8.4 and a spot in the Championship 4.

Would Herbst even bring any sponsorship with him? Monster Energy already backs the 23XI Racing team and Kurt Busch; it’s uncertain how willing they are to increase their spend on a second Cup program. It leaves options limited in a Silly Season where most top-tier drivers are already locked down for 2023. Behind Kyle Busch, Noah Gragson and Ty Dillon may just be the best drivers available; both of them have strong ties to Chevrolet.

That leaves us with Busch, still sitting on the free agent market as negotiations lag with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing. You can argue Busch to SHR would be a clear downgrade based on recent results. But if you’re SHR, especially a man like Gene Haas whose portfolio includes two Formula 1 teams, why not give Busch the checkbook and name your price?

If you don’t land Busch, the options moving forward are less than enticing. Perhaps Kyle Larson could be convinced to move over there after 2023? (Seems unlikely). Team Penske is on the verge of locking Joey Logano up to a long-term deal; you have to imagine Ryan Blaney comes next. With Reddick already signed elsewhere for 2024, the open market is not looking as strong as it might have been a month ago.

The assumption would be, if SHR could land Busch, he replaces Harvick medium-term as the torchbearer for this organization. Suddenly, SHR has a Ford development team at the ready with Kyle Busch Motorsports churning out talent at the Truck level and below. That makes logical sense.

If not? What’s the plan? Tony Stewart will adamantly tell you he has his finger on the pulse of everything he’s doing. But it’s fair to argue he’s doing … a lot. Starting up a NHRA team with wife Leah Pruett. A two-year involvement in the Superstar Racing Experience (SRX), the six-race all-star series that eats up time during the summer. Now, there’s an executive shakeup, as the organization transitions away from someone responsible to help bring in hundreds of millions in sponsorship.

The road ahead for SHR is not impossible. It just seems … murky right now, similar to what Kyle Busch’s future might be. If JGR can’t figure this out, perhaps it’s a good time for the two parties to take a serious look at rebuilding … together.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • The list of hurt feelings at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is longer than initially appears, including two pairings to watch: Ryan Blaney and Daniel Suarez, plus Kevin Harvick and Alex Bowman. Expect the flagman at Bristol Motor Speedway next month to be working overtime.
  • If owner Richard Childress is still this mad at Tyler Reddick, nearly three weeks after their divorce announcement, how can this team stick together come February 2023? When Reddick says things like “I should be racing here next year,” that raises eyebrows. Somebody find them a therapist.
  • A weird post-race note from Kyle Larson’s team: the brakes didn’t fail on the No. 5 car at Indy. So what happened, then, to cause that crazy wreck between him and Ty Dillon?
  • If a victory’s going to happen anywhere for Harvick these next four races … it’s Michigan International Speedway this weekend. He’s got four wins in the last six races there, although last August was a disappointing 14th-place finish where he failed to lead a lap at the track for the first time since 2017.

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About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in 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.

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Kicks

Part of the problem at SHR is that the owners are busy elsewhere. Haas is focused on F1 and Stewart is running and driving the SRX series while also chasing his wife’s NHRA team around the country. The Cup effort has become second fiddle.

John

I am, and have ben since its inception, a big SHR fan. It’s been a long year for the guys, and I have been thinking along the same lines as the comments in this article. Even with his growing pains, it is clear to me the Briscoe is “the guy” now.

Echo

Even thinking of Larson dropping down to the level of SHR is a joke. SHR needs Smithfield or they are in trouble. Bad enough self sponsoring Custer who is never going to be a Cup racer. I’ll bet Richard would consider selling his teams right now. Losing Reddick is all.on Richards shoulders.

Bill B

Agree with your Larson comment. I suppose if they made him and offer he couldn’t refu$$$$e, maybe but that would hurt them in the long run.

Two young guys have had mediocre results so far. Almirola is likeable but is a mid-level driver. Harvick is past his expiration date. They need a total rebuild and to be the top priority of one of their owners.

As for RCR, they has been treading water most of this century. Hiring his grandson might have helped his bottom line but he is not the answer if they want to excel.

Echo

Custer isn’t going to magically turn into a racer, and Almirola wouldn’t have lasted this long without Smithfield. If Harvick is truly past his expiration date, then Haas or Tony really need Smithfield to sponsor someone.i think Reddick just realized that he is as good as anyone in cup today. Gotta love momentum.

Mike

I wouldn’t touch Kyle with a ten foot pole if I were SHR. I rather continue to languish and search for the next young talent before I’d sign some mega contract with KY.

Echo

I think Kyle might have a hard time finding a ride he’s happy with. He hasn’t set the world on fire these last 3 years and he wouldn’t have a win this season if the leaders hadn’t gotten stupid.

Bjk69

They changed crew chiefs

Bjk69

Why not? Because he voices his opinion. He has 3 championships, over 220 wins. One of the best truck organizations in NASCAR history. He’s a first Ballot Hall of Famer. He’s a family man. His organization helps hundreds of families. If you don’t want him,who do you want? Someone like Aric or Ryan. Who has zero championships only maybe 12 wins across all three series between both of them.Give me a break. I bet you voted for Joe Biden because Donald Trump‘s tweets hurt your feelings. 😂

Bill B

Math issues? The last time I checked he only had two championships, at least in Cup, which is the only thing that matters in this conversation.

Griffin Hunter

I’ll take an educated guess at what SHR’s lineup will be, in ’24:

#4 -Preece(Busch/Hunt Bros)
#10 -Nemechek(Mobil 1/Subway)
#14 -Briscoe(High Point/Mahindra)
#41 -KyBusch(Smithfield/Rowdy E)

Bill B

Guess we will know soon. One of those drivers will need to replace Almirola at the end of this year.

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