Kevin Harvick rolls snake eyes and boxcars as often as he throws sevens in Las Vegas. So, his finishing 20th there last week in the NASCAR Cup Series shouldn’t have fans of the No. 4 Ford panicking just yet. The same cannot be said for the rest of the Stewart-Haas Racing outfit.
Four races into the season is too soon to project the playoff field, but the situation looks surprisingly bleak for three-quarters of one of NASCAR’s major teams.
Kevin Harvick will be in the NASCAR Cup Series mix
Racing observers jumped on Kevin Harvick’s 20th-place finish in Las Vegas as confirmation that Stewart-Haas Racing’s slump isn’t a figment of the imagination. That’s reminiscent of the drunk using a light pole more for support than illumination. Harvick’s results on that track from 2014 to 2018 (the first year Las Vegas hosted two races) were all over the place: 41st, first, seventh, 38th, first, and 39th.
Harvick followed with four consecutive top-10 showings there over the past two seasons, so he was due for a clunker – and that’s what he delivered. Despite starting on the pole, he placed 20th and was never a threat to book his first victory of the year after winning nine races in 2020.
Seriously, Harvick will be fine. He placed fourth, sixth, and fifth in the season’s first three races, and he’s not far off his pace from last year when he opened with a victory and seven other top 10s in his first eight races. The time for Stewart-Haas to worry a little would be if he gets midway through the season with just one or two wins.
Otherwise, he’s a candidate to make the playoff sequence and this time not be squeezed out of the Final Four by virtue of placing 16th in Fort Worth and 17th at Martinsville.
Kevin Harvick will be fine even if the rest of Stewart-Haas might not be
Kevin Harvick has led just 17 laps through four races in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series. Don’t be surprised if that statistic fixes itself this weekend in Phoenix, where Harvick has finished in the top 10 in each of his last 15 outings – including six victories.
It’s the rest of the team that should have the Stewart-Haas brass concerned. Aric Almirola, Cole Custer, and rookie Chase Briscoe have been bageled thus far when it comes to top-10 finishes. They trail Harvick and five other Fords in the early points standings and collectively have led one lap this season.
Frontstretch.com astutely points out that the problems may actually have started late last year when Harvick had the only Stewart-Haas top-five showing over the last seven races even though all four cars made it to the playoff. Clint Bowyer retired in November, and took his place. Otherwise, there was no loss of continuity among drivers or crew chiefs coming into 2021.
Stewart-Haas may find itself scrambling in 2022
If Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Aric Almirola, Cole Custer, and Chase Briscoe can’t get untracked and start posting some results in line with Kevin Harvick’s showings, then team owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas could find themselves in a bind when it comes time to re-up sponsors for 2022.
Ironically, reluctant sponsors may have dealt the organization its biggest blow this year. Stewart was eager to sign Kyle Larson to take Clint Boyer’s seat. However, Larson got himself fired early last season for using a racial slur. Even though Larson did all the right things in the aftermath and earned reinstatement from NASCAR, a lot of prospective sponsors didn’t want to be associated with him.
Stewart ended up promoting Briscoe from the Xfinity team, and that is looking like a premature move; Briscoe has not finished higher than 18th thus far.
Meanwhile, Hendrick Motorsports found enough sponsor money to justify giving Larson that second chance, with Rick Hendrick dipping into his own wallet to make up the difference. Larson has rewarded the owner’s faith with three top-10s, including the victory in Las Vegas.
Sponsorship money remains tight in NASCAR, especially with the country still coming out of the pandemic-fueled recession. However, sponsors love winners. One or two more victories from Larson and Hendrick can stick that roll of hundred-dollar bills back in his wallet.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.