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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 organisations – 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 28 May, 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 the latter outfits are expected to continue in a different form in 2025.

Part of this statement said: “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."

With the retirement of SHR veterans Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola at the end of the 2023 season, the deal with Ford Performance entering its last year and with no renewal in sight, the organisation’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, some of which have answers that may never fully come to light.

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.

The unexpected Stewart Haas relationship made an instant impact in 2009

The unexpected Stewart Haas relationship made an instant impact in 2009

Photo by: ©2009, LAT South, USA LAT Photographic

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.

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

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.

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.

Tony Stewart retired from driving in 2016, but this didn't stop the relentless success of SHR

Tony Stewart retired from driving in 2016, but this didn't stop the relentless success of SHR

Photo by: Motorsport Images

In 2017, Busch provided the organisation 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.

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 lustre started to fade.

The inevitable decline

All organisations 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, the fall was as if it had plunged off a mountaintop.

Wins – which previously had 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.

Gene Haas appeared more interested in his F1 outfit than the Stewart Haas NASCAR union

Gene Haas appeared more interested in his F1 outfit than the Stewart Haas NASCAR union

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Since 2021, SHR has won just four times – two of them through 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 also came a noticeable lack of involvement – at least publicly –from both Haas and Stewart in the SHR organization, both at the track and the race shop.

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

Some of the organisation’s top engineers and pit crew members had seen the writing on the wall and jumped ship to other teams in advance of the confirmation

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 combined single victory. 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.

Where do they go?

Once the joint statement was issued by Stewart and Haas on 28 May, and meetings were 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 found themselves with uncertain futures in the category.

Drivers including Chase Briscoe have been left to wonder, what next?

Drivers including Chase Briscoe have been left to wonder, what next?

Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images

Some of the organisation’s top engineers and pit crew members had seen the writing on the wall and jumped ship to other teams in advance of the confirmation.

Those that remained, however, now face the seemingly impossible task of finishing the 2024 season while at the same time trying to lock down positions elsewhere for the future.

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

For those at SHR, the drivers will likely find it easier to continue their careers, with Briscoe already being linked with JGR as a likely replacement for Martin Truex Jr., who recently confirmed his retirement at the end of the campaign.

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

While SHR is offering financial incentives for employees to remain through the end of the season, there will inevitably be some who decide to leave early. 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,” said Briscoe.

“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?

Tony Stewart's 2011 celebrations are a far cry from the current mood at SHR

Tony Stewart's 2011 celebrations are a far cry from the current mood at SHR

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

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