The introduction of the NextGen car was a sight for sore eyes when it came to the smaller teams in the Cup Series. It was the opportunity to level the playing field, and to give them a fighting chance each and every weekend. The same could be said for Stewart Haas Racing, who had a dismal 2021 season as a whole.
The four-car team of Kevin Harvick, Chase Briscoe, Aric Almirola, and Cole Custer combined for 12 top-five finishes last year. Ten of those came from Harvick, who had his first winless season since 2009. The veteran driver has 58 career wins but he enters today's race on a 46-race winless streak. Almirola has three career wins and Custer has just one, with Briscoe still searching for his first taste of victory.
By the way things have started this season, Briscoe might not be waiting very much longer. The sophomore driver started the year strong with a 3rd place finish in the Daytona 500, then led 20 laps on his way to a 16th place finish at Fontana. Last weekend he was collected in a crash at Las Vegas but qualified 6th yesterday, and will start alongside his teammate Almirola.
Almirola has been leading the charge each weekend for this team, finishing 5th, 6th, and 6th in the three races this season. In fact, he is the only driver that has finished inside the top ten in every races this year. The veteran announced before the season that this would be his final year a full-time Cup Series driver. The 37-year old has identified why his team has been so strong.
"We fight," Almirola said. "That’s the beauty of this race team. We’re still learning this car. There’s a lot to learn about it and we’re still trying to figure a lot of things out. Practice is great, but we’ve got to make adjustments throughout the race and I feel like every race we’re learning more and more and more and we’re building a notebook. This team has so much fight in it and so much grit that it’s a lot of fun to race with these guys. We’ll keep digging and try and keep this streak alive of all these top 10 finishes. It’s a lot of fun when you run up front.”
Dating back to the end of last season, Almirola has finished inside the top ten in five consecutive races. He will be searching for his first win of the season this afternoon at Phoenix, a place where he has performed well in recent years. In his last nine starts here, he has six top tens, including a pair of 4th place finishes while leading 33 laps. That may be good, but it pales in comparison to Harvick's resume.
Harvick has nine wins at Phoenix Raceway, and is the all-time laps leader at the 1-mile oval. He has finished 9th or better in the last 17 races here. The last time he finished outside of the top ten at Phoenix was in 2013. He has also scored stage points in 16 of the 20 stages that he has raced here. If there was ever a place where he could snap his winless streak, this would be it. The 2014 Cup Series champion starts 16th later today.
Though they have had an up-and-down start to the season, Harvick knows that it is not a sprint. “These first five weeks of the season, we’ve had a mindset of survival,” Harvick stated. “We’re learning a lot about these race cars in regard to wear and tear on the parts and pieces, how to fix things, how well you can fix things and the tendencies of the car. I think finding the limits of the car and learning about the car from a driver’s standpoint, that’s why you’re seeing accidents."
"Our sport is unlike a lot of professional sports,” Harvick continued. “A lot of professional sports depend on your body and speed and agility. Our sport puts a lot of value on experience, just because of the fact that in order to perform, you need common sense paired with street smarts so you can make decisions on the fly and, sometimes, just so you can survive. We grind away week after week and get solid finishes with cars that just weren’t as good as they needed to be. While we were trying to figure it out and make the cars better as we went through the year, we still had to race."
With so many changes this season, some familiar faces have been finding success at the end of races. Team Penske captured the Daytona 500, then Hendrick Motorsports took the next two with Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman. Joe Gibbs Racing looks just as strong as last year, with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin knocking on the door, an improved young talent in Christopher Bell, and Martin Truex Jr having solid pace as well.
While these big teams continue to shine, Stewart Haas Racing continues to fight to get back into the spotlight. Once regarded as one of the top teams in the series, they must now work their way back to the top with this solid group of drivers. As they continue to evolve and learn about this car, expect them to keep making gains in all four camps. With Harvick's experience and the continued development of Briscoe, it really is just a matter of time for this team. The wins are coming.