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May 29, 2024 12:51 pm

Stubbs: Stewart-Haas closure should serve as cautionary tale

briscoe, pit

For a team that has enjoyed so much success over the past 15 years, the news that Stewart-Haas Racing will shut down following the 2024 season sent shockwaves through the sport.

Yes, Stewart-Haas has reportedly been seeking buyers for its four charters for the past few months. But Tuesday’s news brought no mention of buyers for those charters while creating plenty of questions about how the once-proud organization came to this ending.

It wasn’t losing the 2020 championship with Kevin Harvick, despite Harvick winning nine races. It wasn’t winning just two races combined in 2021 and 2022. It wasn’t putting just one of four cars in the playoffs in 2023, and relying on a 48-year-old Harvick to put an entire company on his back.

For a race team, this is rock bottom. An organization that won two NASCAR Cup Series championships, Stewart-Haas Racing will shut down all four Cup Series teams and both Xfinity Series teams.

Despite poor performance over the past three seasons, Stewart-Haas seemed to be on the upswing when the haulers rolled into Daytona in February. They returned half of their 2023 lineup in Chase Briscoe and Ryan Preece, and boasted new talent in rookie Josh Berry and second-year driver Noah Gragson to complete their Cup Series lineup.

In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, they returned a perennial playoff contender in Riley Herbst and the 2023 Xfinity Series champion in Cole Custer. Combined with a series of inspirational social media posts, Stewart-Haas wanted fans to believe that they were ready to shock the world and return to their dominant form in 2024.

It’s an understatement to say that announcing your closure more than five months before the season ends is falling short of returning to form.

Ironically, the team’s on-track performance has seen an uptick this season.

Briscoe has been floating around the Cup Series playoff bubble all season while Berry is on pace to win Rookie of the Year honors. And despite penalties incurred at Atlanta, both Gragson and Preece have put forth respectable efforts, with Gragson earning five top-10 finishes through the first 14 events of the season.

In the Xfinity Series, Custer and Herbst remain comfortably inside the postseason picture, with Custer finishing top-10 in nine of the series’ first 12 races.

Unfortunately, any development taking place this season for the organization will all be for naught.

While the team will still put forth plenty of effort in a quest to reach victory lane, a Cup Series championship seems much too lofty a goal. An Xfinity Series championship, while a nice piece of hardware, would do little to console the more than 300 employees who will be seeking new jobs.

The question of how Stewart-Haas got to this point doesn’t have a concrete answer, but one particular piece of evidence has many fans pointing fingers.

It seems that the team’s two namesakes, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and business mogul Gene Haas, have been frequently absent from the NASCAR circuit. While every team owner in the sport isn’t at the track every week, several — including a few north of 70 years old such as Rick Hendrick and Richard Petty — have been spotted far more frequently than Stewart or Haas.

Both have other racing ventures to attend to, but it would certainly be a boost — both morally and in terms of on-track performance — if a boss like Stewart was seen more around the race shop and less on TV participating in drag racing events.

While Stewart has been more involved in drag racing in recent years, Haas has been focusing efforts on his Formula 1 team, which has produced poor results so far in 2024. Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen sit 13th and 17th in 20-driver F1 standings.

The lack of their regular presence certainly isn’t the sole reason for Stewart-Haas’ exit from NASCAR, but it’s fair to assume it likely played a role. But whatever the reasons for Stewart-Haas’ departure are — lack of involvement from bosses, losing sponsors, a pure lack of speed on the racetrack, etc. — their relatively sudden departure from America’s most popular motorsports needs to be meticulously examined by every team owner in the garage area.

It would be hard to replicate the sudden fall from grace that Stewart-Haas Racing experienced. But if it can happen to a team that won multiple NASCAR championships and featured popular drivers throughout its time along with ties to marquee sponsors, it can happen to anyone.

NASCAR teams beware — Stewart-Haas’ demise shouldn’t be seen as just another breaking news story, but rather, a cautionary tale of the uncertainty of modern day auto racing.

–Samuel Stubbs, Field Level Media

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