Stewart-Haas Racing's struggles and other observations from the first quarter of the 2021 NASCAR season

Nick Bromberg
·4-min read

It’s hard to call Stewart-Haas Racing one of the best teams in NASCAR right now.

Kevin Harvick is, once again, in the top 10 in the points standings. But at 8th, he’s having a year that’s considered below average based on the lofty standards he’s set since joining the team in 2014. He’s finished outside the top five just once in his seven previous seasons with the team. That was an eighth-place finish in 2016.

But Harvick’s struggles are nothing compared to the three other cars at SHR. After Sunday’s race at Richmond, Cole Custer is the only other SHR driver in the top 25. And he’s 25th.

Aric Almirola is in 27th and Chase Briscoe is eight points behind in 28th. Only four drivers racing full-time have fewer points than Almirola and Briscoe. That’s how poorly things have gone for SHR this year.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 14: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, on-track after incident during the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Aric Almirola was sixth on Sunday but is still 27th in the points standings thanks to three crashes in nine races. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The team has just one top-10 finish from a driver not named Harvick either. That’s courtesy of Almirola’s sixth-place finish on Sunday. But he ran so poorly throughout the first eight races of the season that it moved him up just one spot on the standings.

Is it time to hit the panic button for SHR? There are just eight spots available on points in the playoffs now that eight drivers have won through the first nine races of the season. And making the playoffs on points is going to be an uphill battle for Almirola, Briscoe and Custer.

Custer is already 55 points back of Kurt Busch, the driver in the last provisional playoff spot. That’s less than a full race. But there are eight drivers between Custer and Busch. There are 17 races left in the regular season. If one or more SHR drivers is going to make up that ground, the team needs to get better in a hurry.

Here are some other observations from the first quarter of the Cup Series season:

• Denny Hamlin is still searching for his first win of the season after Alex Bowman swiped the win away from him in the late laps on Sunday. But Hamlin’s season is still phenomenal. He’s got an average finish of 4.2 and has an 81-point lead over Martin Truex Jr. in the points standings.

To put that in perspective, Hamlin could take this week’s race at Talladega off and still have a 21-point lead on Truex if Truex won the race and the first and second stages.

Hamlin’s points lead gets magnified as you go down the standings. He is over two races ahead of William Byron in fourth and over three races ahead of teammate Kyle Busch in 11th.

With eight top 10s in nine races and a worst finish of 11th, Hamlin is bound to cool off even as he gets a win or three. But it’s going to take a serious cold streak for Hamlin to not be at or near the top of the standings at the end of the regular season.

• The top 10 has been populated by a lot of the same drivers so far this season. Six drivers have scored at least six top-10 finishes through nine races and eight drivers have at least five top-10 finishes. That top-10 dominance is a big reason why the points gap is so large throughout the field.

Kurt Busch is 15th in the standings and has two top 10s. He has 214 points — less than half of Hamlin’s 434 points. Busch is 220 points back of Hamlin and 96 points back of Byron in fourth.

• Four drivers have led over 300 laps. Hamlin has led 694 laps, Kyle Larson has led 379, Truex has led 360 and Joey Logano has led 314.

• Bubba Wallace is 20th in the standings with his new 23XI Racing team. He’s currently the highest driver without a top-10 finish and hasn’t finished any better than 16th so far this season.

• The standings are very tight from 18th through 26th. Matt DiBenedetto has 175 points in 18th while Erik Jones has 147 points in 26th. The gap from DiBenedetto in 18th to Briscoe in 28th is 46 points.

• That 46-point gap is smaller than the gap from Briscoe in 28th to Corey LaJoie in 29th. LaJoie has just 76 points through four races and is a point ahead of Anthony Alfredo.

• Behind LaJoie and Alfredo are two drivers who are simply logging laps. Quin Houff has 52 points and Josh Bilicki has 45 despite each driver running every race so far. Hamlin has scored 52 or more points in four races so far this season and more than 45 points in seven of nine races.

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