Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t having a very good NASCAR Cup Series season, but Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola made the playoffs. Despite those two plus Chase Briscoe and Cole Custer likely earning another season of job security, team co-owner Tony Stewart still faces his second straight year of starting from scratch.
That’s because SHR, like all the Cup Series teams, must retire the current fleets and introduce the Next Gen cars, hopefully in time for the Daytona 500. The car offers enhanced safety and likely reduces the gap between the top and bottom performers. Multiple drivers performed a shakeout on the setups in testing this week.
Drivers will do more testing between now and Daytona. Stewart and Gene Haas will have to optimize the new cars once NASCAR sets the final standards shortly before the 2022 season.
A year ago, though, Stewart turned his attention to another major initiative that introduced a not-so-new racing idea to fans. Stewart and Ray Evernham, who made his reputation as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief in the 1990s, founded Superstar Racing Experience (SRX).
SRX launched with a six-race season and the general premise of the old IROC series: Put drivers from various backgrounds into identically prepared cars and let ‘em go at it. But SRX added some changeups, including relying on dirt tracks, randomly assigning crew chiefs to new cars each week, and enlisting local drivers as one-off entries.
Stewart and Evernham didn’t score a monstrous success right out of the box, but CBS liked what it saw on Saturday nights. SRX delivered an obvious NASCAR flavor, but with shorter races and smaller fields. TV viewers bought into the idea enough to earn Stewart and Evernham a second season of mixing the likes of Helio Castroneves and Paul Tracy with NASCAR and IMSA veterans.
Speaking to CBS Sports leading up to the start of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Stewart said he is lining up money for the new season’s traveling show. He’s also been kicking around innovations, including literally taking SRX down a different road.
“Obviously after the first season you’re gonna make tweaks and changes, but (we’re) extremely happy with the product, obviously. Happy with the fact that after Week 1 we took the fans’ feedback and were able to implement that for the next five weeks. I personally would like to add a road course race to the schedule next year, definitely looking at driver lineups and potential changes in the driver lineup for next year.”Tony Stewart
Tacking on a road course is a departure from version 1.0 of SRX, but it makes sense. It serves as an equalizer for drivers, who come from a variety of backgrounds, and adds a challenge for crew chiefs, who really only needed to set up cars in one fashion a year ago. But NASCAR went heavy on road courses this season, and all but the most hardcore Cup Series fans seemed to embrace the idea.
But what can Stewart do beyond adding a road course? Here are some possibilities:
- Digging down into the local ranks for qualified local drivers to round out the fields was pure genius. It sells tickets at the track and intrigues TV viewers. Doug Colby won the season debut at Stafford, Connecticut, creating a buzz and earning him a start in the truck series. Ernie Francis Jr., a Trans-Am series champion, won at Lucas Oil Raceway and fielded feelers about rides in the trucks and Xfinity series.
These guys aren’t gimmicks, and SRX can use more of them.
- Expanding by one or two races is plausible, but every additional week on the schedule adds to overhead costs. Additionally, CBS may not have the airtime and/or advertisers to handle rapid growth. In lieu of that, perhaps SRX can drop one or two midwestern tracks and expand a bit to the east and south. It’s not a priority, but that’s part of the formula for growing a business.
- The best way to greater visibility is by adding drivers, but that requires more (expensive) cars.
Chase Elliott pulled double duty by racing against his father in Nashville on Saturday night and then returning to his NASCAR gig the following day. If Stewart, who drove in the SRX series this summer, can use his connections to add active Cup Series drivers and colleagues like Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr., now that they know SRX isn’t some fly-by-night outfit, he could probably goose TV ratings by another 20%.
Again, there’s an expense involved in adding cars. But aiming big requires an investment. Besides, the cost of two or four more cars will pale in comparison to buying the fleet of Next Gen cars that Stewart-Haas will need for the 2022 season.