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Analysis

Stewart-Haas Racing: The unexpected rise and fall of a NASCAR giant

The quick demise of Stewart-Haas Racing matches its unexpected meteoric rise into one of NASCAR Cup’s most successful organizations – but both appear the result of the willingness of its owners to invest the time and money to do it.

2014 NASCAR Cup champion Kevin Harvick

On May 28, co-owners Gene Haas and Tony Stewart issued a joint statement announcing the closure of SHR at the conclusion of the 2024 NASCAR season. That involves four full-time Cup Series teams and a pair of full-time Xfinity teams (although they are expected to continue in a different form in 2025).

“The commitment needed to extract maximum performance while providing sustainability is incredibly demanding, and we’ve reached a point in our respective personal and business lives where it’s time to pass the torch,” the statement said in part.

With the retirement of SHR veterans Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola at the end of the 2023 season and SHR’s deal with Ford Performance entering its last year with no renewal in sight, the organization’s viable future was already a hot topic of discussion entering this season.

Still, the finality of the decision seemed jarring – and with it left many questions, the exact answers to which may never truly be known.

Even with SHR’s future announced, its present comes with a difficult road ahead for its drivers and employees as they try to finish out the year while at the same time working to secure new homes for the future.

The signs were clear the end was coming for SHR, but the reasons behind it were much cloudier.

The unusual pairing

The idea of Stewart, then a two-time Cup champion driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, sharing ownership in a Cup team with billionaire machine-tool businessman Haas, seemed to come out of nowhere in 2008.

Haas had owned a two-car Cup operation called Haas CNC Racing that had a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, but it never had attracted top-level drivers or been able to win on a consistent basis.

Stewart, a hard-nosed driver prone to controversy off the track, had burst into NASCAR with Joe Gibbs Racing straight from the IndyCar Series with great success in 1999.

Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet of Tony Stewart detail

Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet of Tony Stewart detail

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

The two seemed an unlikely pairing but Stewart provided what Haas needed most – a reason for the best in NASCAR to want to work with his racing team – and Stewart would have the opportunity for autonomy in the decisions that would forge his NASCAR future.

Haas was willing to invest the money – both in people and equipment – to win and Stewart’s commitment to excellence would help attract sponsors and some of the best talent in the NASCAR garage.

To kick off the 2009 season, the newly named SHR fielded a pair of full-time Chevrolet Cup teams with Stewart driving the No. 14 and Ryan Newman – who had enjoyed a successful career at Team Penske – in the No. 39.

Immediate success

The new organization flexed its muscle quickly with Stewart winning four times in his first season as a team co-owner. He then captured his third Cup title two years later, winning the 2011 championship in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards, which cemented SHR as a big-league player in the sport.

By 2013, SHR added a third Cup team with former IndyCar driver Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to win pole position for the Daytona 500. The rapid expansion continued, enticing Harvick to leave Richard Childress Racing to replace Newman before Haas went out on his own and hired Kurt Busch to create a new fourth team in 2014.

Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers flourished from the start in their initial season together, winning five times and capturing the series title – and SHR’s second in just six years.

Race winner and 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet celebrates

Race winner and 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet celebrates

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Even when Stewart decided to retire as a full-time Cup driver following the 2016 season and Haas entered Formula 1 with a two-car operation, SHR seemed to maintain its standard of excellence, both on the track and in attracting quality drivers and sponsors.

In 2017, Busch provided the organization with its first Daytona 500 victory. By 2020, SHR had moved from Chevrolet to Ford and quickly established itself as one of the manufacturer’s top NASCAR programs.

Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford

Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

SHR collected 26 victories over the course of the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons and it had all four of its drivers qualify for the Cup playoffs in 2020.

But just as SHR had established itself as one of NASCAR’s elites, its luster started to fade.

The inevitable decline

All organizations in racing go through their lean years – it’s generally just a matter of degree in the drop-off.

Teams like Hendrick Motorsports and JGR may win far less often and fail to be in contention for the series championship. Smaller, lower-funded teams may go from occasionally winning to being unable to garner top-10 finishes.

For SHR, it was as if it plunged off a mountaintop.

Wins – which seemed to come easily – were suddenly scarce, even for veterans like Harvick, who continued to have the most consistent results of any of the drivers at SHR.

Since 2021, SHR has won just four times – two of them by Harvick in the 2022 season. SHR also saw the departure of veterans Clint Bowyer and Busch and an influx of younger talent.

With the decline in performance came also a noticeable lack of involvement – at least publicly – by both Haas and Stewart in the SHR organization, both at the track and the race shop.

Gene Haas, Owner and Founder, Haas F1

Gene Haas, Owner and Founder, Haas F1

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Haas seemed far more interested in his F1 operation but alsohas battled a serious health issue over the last couple years. In addition to his sprint car team, Stewart now owns an NHRA team, which includes his wife, Leah Pruett, as a Top Fuel driver. 

Earlier this year, Stewart announced he would compete full-time this season in NHRA in place of his wife as the couple planned to start a family.

By this season, SHR – once a dominant force filled with consistent winners – was fielding four Cup teams with drivers holding a collective one series win. The retirement of Harvick and Almirola also saw the departure of longtime sponsors Busch Beer and Smithfield Foods.

It was by no means a stretch of the imagination to say SHR was in trouble, but more troubling was the apparent lack of effort – or perhaps interest – in saving it.

Chase Briscoe, Stewart Haas Racing, Rush Truck Centers / Cummins Ford Mustang

Chase Briscoe, Stewart Haas Racing, Rush Truck Centers / Cummins Ford Mustang

Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images

Where do they go?

Once the joint statement was issued by Stewart and Haas on May 28, and meetings held at the race shop the same day, hundreds of employees and four Cup drivers – Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Noah Gragson and Josh Berry – suddenly had an uncertain NASCAR future.

Some of the organization’s top engineers and pit crew members had seen the writing on the wall and left over the last year for other teams.

Those that remained, however, now face a seemingly impossible task – finish out the 2024 season while at the same time trying to lock down positions for the future.

While Stewart never held any ownership role in the F1 organization, its future should be unaffected by the closure of SHR and its NASCAR operations. Haas, alone, has run that racing program and will decide its fate.

For those at SHR, the drivers will likely find it easier to continue to their careers. Briscoe has been mentioned as a likely replacement at JGR for Martin Truex Jr., who recently confirmed his retirement at season’s end.

Berry has been mentioned as a possible addition at Front Row Motorsports. Gragson and Preece face more uncertain futures.

Noah Gragson, Stewart Haas Racing, Bass Pro Shops Winchester Ford Mustang, Chase Briscoe, Stewart Haas Racing, Rush Truck Centers / Cummins Ford Mustang

Noah Gragson, Stewart Haas Racing, Bass Pro Shops Winchester Ford Mustang, Chase Briscoe, Stewart Haas Racing, Rush Truck Centers / Cummins Ford Mustang

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

While SHR is offering financial incentives for employees to remain through the end of the season, there will be some who decide to leave early – and some who already have. What is left of SHR will have its resolve tested as it tries to finish the season.

“Every other team that we’re racing against, all they focus on week-in and week-out is how to make their race car go fast that weekend,” Briscoe said.

“At our place, we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to provide for our families next year, where we’re going to work next year, and on top of all that, how am I going to get a fast race car to the race track.”

Just five years ago, who could have envisioned such a scenario?

Victory lane: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2011 champion Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet celebrates

Victory lane: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2011 champion Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet celebrates

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

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