Ever since the organization formed in 2009, Stewart-Haas Racing has been a formidable force on race day. Team owner Tony Stewart captured the team’s first championship in 2011 when the organization fielded just two cars, and Kevin Harvick captured the second championship for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Since then, SHR hasn’t gotten the big trophy at the end of the season, but the 2020 season was a huge step in the right direction. Two of the four drivers for Stewart-Haas Racing captured a combined 10 wins in the 36-race season.
For the fifth consecutive year, Stewart-Haas Racing will have a different driver roster than the previous season. Veterans Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola will return to their nos. 4 and 10 teams, respectively, and Cole Custer will stay with the no. 41 team for his sophomore season. One of 2020’s NASCAR Xfinity Series stars, Chase Briscoe, will take over the no. 14 for 2021, which will be his rookie season in NASCAR Cup Series competition.
Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Ford Mustang
2020: 36 starts, 9 wins, 20 top-fives, 27 top-10s, 0 poles, 1,531 laps led, 5th in points
Career: 718 starts, 58 wins, 226 top-fives, 389 top-10s, 31 poles
Kevin Harvick had the best season of any driver in 2020, winning 25% of all NASCAR Cup Series points races. He was the regular season champion and, with the season finale at his best racetrack, the odds-on favorite to win what would have been his second Cup Series championship. Unfortunately, things didn’t fall Harvick’s way in the Round of 8, and for just the second time in the history of the playoff grid, Kevin Harvick was eliminated.
2020 may have ended in disappointing fashion, but that shouldn’t discourage the no. 4 team and Harvick fans about the future. If anything, that should make the team and fans feel better about 2021 knowing that Harvick is more competitive ever. In the last three seasons, Harvick has collected 21 wins, more than any other three-year total in his career.
While expectations are high for Harvick headed into 2021, it would be hard to expect another season like he had in 2020. 2016 was the only other season Harvick was eliminated from the playoffs, and the year after, Harvick struggled to recreate his former successes, capturing just two wins. It was a ‘hangover’ of sorts, but that could also be attributed to the fact that Stewart-Haas Racing had switched from Chevrolet in 2016 to Ford in 2017. Regardless, you have to imagine that the end result of 2020 will have an impact on how Harvick does in 2021.
The writer’s prediction: I’m not sure how I feel about Harvick’s 2021 season just yet. I could see him having a hangover again and winning very few races, but I can also picture him winning six or seven races as well. I think he’ll perform well regardless, and he’ll be in the playoffs for sure. As far as wins, I don’t think I’ll be surprised unless he wins zero races (and let’s be honest, the likelihood of that is .0000000000000000000001%).
Aric Almirola, No. 10 Ford Mustang
2020: 36 starts, 0 wins, 6 top-fives, 18 top-10s, 0 poles, 305 laps led, 15th in points
Career: 352 starts, 2 wins, 24 top-fives, 79 top-10s, 2 poles
Despite going winless in 2020, Aric Almirola posted some of his best stats in a single season of his career. He had the most top-five and top-10 finishes as the best average start and most laps led in a season of his career. Unfortunately for Almirola, his teammates stole much of the spotlight in 2020.
Coming into his fourth year with the no. 10 team, Almirola has collected just one win with Stewart-Haas Racing, which came over two years ago at Talladega Superspeedway. This is a really alarming statistic, because he’s in a ride capable of winning. He reminds me a bit of Michael Waltrip: competitive here and there, only has wins at Daytona and Talladega, and despite the lack of wins compared to his teammates, he’s still in the sport, which amazes me given how hard it is to retain sponsors these days.
It seems like Almirola improves each year, so there’s no reason to doubt he can’t best his own records again in 2021, but long-term, Almirola needs to win. There’s plenty of talent in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series who would love to take his seat and would do just as good or better with it.
The writer’s prediction: Almirola makes the playoffs on points for the third-consecutive year. He’ll continue his quiet consistency and be competitive here and there, but he’ll be eliminated from the playoffs in the Round of 12 or 16.
Chase Briscoe, No. 14 Ford Mustang
No NASCAR Cup Series starts
Chase Briscoe has never driven in the NASCAR Cup Series, but after seeing what he’s been able to do in the Xfinity Series in 2020, there’s no reason to doubt Briscoe’s abilities in a race car. He won nine times in a Stewart-Haas Racing Xfinity Series car in 2020 before falling short at Phoenix for the championship.
Briscoe hasn’t made any starts in the Cup Series, so it isn’t likely the first half of the season will be too great, but as Briscoe and his crew gain experience together, they’ll have the equipment and capabilities to continually improve.
The writer’s prediction: Chase Briscoe will be the 2021 Cup Series rookie of the year. He’ll run alongside recent rookies like Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer during a majority of the season. I don’t expect Briscoe to win, but I won’t be surprised to see it happen if it does.
Cole Custer, No. 41 Ford Mustang
2020: 36 starts, 1 win, 2 top-fives, 7 top-10s, 0 poles, 5 laps led, 16th in points
Career: 39 starts, 1 win, 2 top-fives, 7 top-10s, 0 poles
Cole Custer was the only rookie in 2020 to win a race, which propelled him into the playoffs and secured him the Rookie of the Year award. Despite all of his achievements, his performances were otherwise average. Aside from his Kentucky win, he wasn’t really part of the picture to win at any other event last season.
Custer still has plenty to learn before wins come more frequently. Fortunately, he’s got two experienced teammates and a former Xfinity Series teammate to lean on, and that could very much help him in gaining that necessary knowledge faster than other less experienced Cup Series drivers.
The writer’s prediction: Custer will become a more consistent driver in 2021. He may point his way into the playoffs, but I don’t see him getting farther than the Round of 16.