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Stewart-Haas Racing has lagged behind many of the other multi-car organizations in NASCAR since the sanctioning body introduced the Next Gen car model in 2022, but it has begun to show signs of life at least on one particular type of track.

SHR driver Ryan Preece won his first career Cup Series pole award last weekend at Martinsville Speedway and proceeded to lead the first 135 laps of the 400-lap event Sunday at the 0.5-mile short track. He ultimately ended up 15th after a long grind back through the field from a pit-road speeding penalty he received during a caution period that began on Lap 134.

In the meantime, his SHR teammates Kevin Harvick and Chase Briscoe combined to lead 129 of the final 265 circuits. Harvick got caught on an unfortunate pit cycle when a caution came out for a stray tire on the frontstretch with 96 laps to go. He ultimately finished 20th, but Briscoe held the lead after the caution and took home a fifth-place result with teammate Aric Almirola right behind in sixth.

Stewart-Haas Racing struggled mightily before recent short-track swing

Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Ryan Preece
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Ryan Preece during practice for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway | Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Sunday was a superb day for an organization that had only two top-10 finishes from its three drivers not named Kevin Harvick, who posted five top-10s through the first eight races of the season despite the organization-wide struggles to adapt to the Next Gen car.

Martinsville was also the second straight event SHR had placed two drivers inside the top 10. Briscoe finished fifth, and Harvick ran 10th in the dirt race at the high-banked, half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway. Preece ran inside the top five for much of the first half of the race before contact with Kyle Larson spun him, and he could recover only to 24th. Almirola also appeared near the front of the field early in the event before troubles left him 10 laps behind in 31st.

The short-track swing began a week prior at the 0.75-mile Richmond Raceway. Harvick led the way for SHR with a fifth-place finish, but Briscoe and Almirola finished 12th and 13th, respectively.

The speed from the Stewart-Haas Racing cars during the three races at short tracks, even though the Bristol race was on a dirt surface, is notable, given how absent the four SHR Fords have been at the front of the field since the beginning of the 2022 season.

Briscoe won the spring race at Phoenix Raceway in the No. 14 machine, and Harvick won back-to-back races in August at Michigan International Speedway and Richmond in the No. 4 car, but Harvick was the only driver with an average finish better than 17th with his 14.3 mark. That was the lowest average finish to lead SHR cars since 2013, when Ryan Newman paced the organization with a 16.0 average finish. 

Harvick has led the organization in terms of on-track success for years, but even he had his worst statistical season since 2012 when he was still in the No. 29 car for Richard Childress Racing.

SHR struggled throughout the entire 2022 season, so the glimpse of speed it showed the last three weeks on short tracks at least should give the organization something to use as a foundation to start to move forward with some consistency. 

SHR could use recent success as a launching pad for the rest of the season

If nothing else, it should offer hope that one of its four cars could clinch a playoff berth in July at Richmond. Then, any SHR drivers who make the 16-driver postseason field could have real chances to advance with the first-round elimination race at Bristol and the final race to qualify for the Championship 4 in October at Martinsville.

The upcoming race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway won’t provide much insight into SHR’s overall progress since the pack racing at Talladega allows any driver who starts the race a better-than-normal chance to post a season-best result.

The five races after Talladega, however, should show whether or not SHR has found something in its setup for the Next Gen car that will help the organization at more than just short tracks. The Cup Series will visit five tracks between 1.0 mile and 1.5 miles in length that often showcase which teams will be the top contenders for the championship once the playoffs arrive.

Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, and Kurt Busch combined to win those five races a year ago. Logano ultimately won the championship, Elliott made the Championship 4, and Hamlin finished fifth in the points standings after narrowly missing the final four. Busch’s title chances ended in a qualifying crash in July at Pocono Raceway that inflicted a head injury that ended his season prematurely.

Stewart-Haas Racing might be back to the Harvick-and-nothing show once the series arrives in two weeks at Dover Motor Speedway to begin that five-race stretch, but it has at least shown recent signs of improvement that may signal its return toward the top of the standings.

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