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Stewart-Haas Racing Building a Notebook, and Some Confidence

Stewart-Haas Racing improvement Martinsville Josh Berry Ryan Preece 2024 NASCAR Cup Series

Photo Credit: Tyson Gifford, TobyChristie.com

Stewart-Haas Racing ended a disappointing 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season with a boatload of questions, and seemingly not a whole lot of answers. The team struggled mightily all season long and failed to record a single win last year, marking the first season in the history of the organization that they didn’t collect a NASCAR Cup Series trophy. To make matters worse, the legendary Kevin Harvick departed as he retired from NASCAR Cup Series competition.

Despite all of this, the team dug in deep in the offseason. Team co-owner Tony Stewart openly blasted the team’s 2023 performance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio in the offseason, calling it, “unacceptable.” While Stewart had his criticisms, he did explain that he was excited about the energy in the shop.

With Harvick leaving, and Stewart issuing his comments in the media, Ryan Preece says that he feels it activated everybody’s fight-or-flight response.

“Honestly, it was really great to lean on [Harvick], but at the same time, there have been some really productive conversations that we’ve had this year in our group, between the four of us,” Preece explained. “I feel like between the [Darkhorse] body, and some of those conversations, that’s also going to help us. It was time — I don’t know how to really put this, but man, [Harvick] carried it for so long. How are we supposed to carry it? How do we find our direction? And I know Josh and I both, we talk to Kevin, and we race for Kevin. But this is sink or swim. Figure it out. You can’t always go back to dad.”

Fast forward to seven races into the 2024 season, and it’s looking like the energy in the shop has resulted in a better overall four-car organization. And while none of the four cars are currently inside the Playoff cutline, all four of the team’s drivers have shown signs of life. They’ve learned to swim in choppy waters.

Josh Berry, who joined the organization in the offseason, said in a Thursday media availability that he feels like the entire team has changed in the few months since he first joined the group.

“I just feel like just the philosophy itself, I feel like it is changed,” Berry said. “Everybody seems like they’re just more motivated to work together and being open-minded. I feel like everybody has done a really good job with it.”

Berry, in particular, has impressed for the SHR team in recent weeks as he has recorded two top-15 finishes in his last three starts. And in those two top-15 finishes, which came at short tracks, Berry had long sustained portions of the races where he was a top-five to top-10 contender.

The momentum could be building for the rookie contender at the right time, as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to the 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s Cook Out 400. Martinsville is the sight of Berry’s first-career NASCAR Xfinity Series win, which came back in 2021, and Berry is well-versed on how to collect wins at the half-mile paperclip as he led all 200 laps in the 2019 edition of the prestigious Martinsville 300 Late Model race.

“Yeah, I’m definitely excited for it,” Berry explained. “I feel like it should be another good really opportunity for us to run well. It seems like our cars have been good at the short tracks. We’ve run a couple of them now to build some notes and work off of some things. I think it should be a good opportunity to go run and see how good we are.”

While Martinsville is a place that Berry is obviously very comfortable at, the Stewart-Haas Racing team, as a whole, has to be licking its collective chops heading into the weekend.

Stewart-Haas Racing excelled in the Martinsville Speedway event last spring.

Sure, none of them wound up winning the race, but the team combined to lead 264 of the 500 laps, and had it not been for a pit road speeding penalty on Lap 136, who knows, Ryan Preece could have led the entire race wire-to-wire. He was that good in clean air.

“When we hit it, it’s definitely there. It’s capable,” Preece said. “You know, we showed that at the first Martinsville last year. And having that speed, and then unfortunately, it comes down to not speeding and losing that track position.”

Preece concedes that a lot has changed at Martinsville with the short track aero package being tweaked, and the goodyear tire combination being changed, but the driver of the No. 41 Ford Mustang is encouraged by the speed he had at Martinsville last year, and the speed his teammates showed in securing solid finishes in the race.

“There are a lot of things that are different, but [it’s] still the same track,” Preece stated. “We just need to, our group needs to make some adjustments to be that much better. But SHR, as a whole, has definitely had speed at Martinsville. We saw it last year with Aric [Almirola] and Chase [Briscoe] there at the end of the race.”

You get a real sense of confidence in the tone when you hear the SHR drivers talk about this weekend’s Cook Out 400 at Martinsville. It’s incredible given the organization’s current 55-race winless skid.

While a big part of it is how SHR has performed on short, flat tracks, part of the confidence comes from the bright spots the team has already experienced in the early portion of the 2024 season. In no race this season have all four Stewart-Haas Racing teams at the top of their game at the same time, but all four have carried the banner for the team at some point through the opening seven races.

While they are all achieving vastly different results each weekend as they all pull in different directions organizationally in the opening races of the season, the team is quickly building a notebook of things that work at each race track.

The hope is that when the NASCAR Cup Series returns to tracks for the second time this year, all four SHR cars will be in the ballpark when they unload off the truck.

“I think you guys have touched on it from a mile-and-a-half standpoint. We’ve only really been to one, right? Las Vegas, Noah [Gragson] was really fast. The No. 4 team qualified really well, so the potential is definitely there,” Preece explained. “I would say from a morale standpoint, we want to be consistently talking about the four of us running top-10, top-five. That’s the goal for every race team. And not just have some outliers here and there. And I think that’s what we’re all trying to do is work as a group, and have some real consistency.”

While Preece ultimately faded to finish 28th this past weekend at Richmond Raceway, his disappointment was quelched by the pace shown by Berry. Preece feels the information gained by Rodney Childers and the No. 4 team will bolster his No. 41 team down the road.

“We didn’t go in the right direction. In the wets, we were pretty good. I drove up to 10th. We put slicks on, and reality kinda hit us pretty hard. We fell. We just weren’t good,” Preece said of Richmond. “One thing I will say, is it was nice having Josh be so fast because we have access to see what they did, and make our car better, and see what direction we need to go. Man, when he blew my doors off going forward, I looked at him and was like, ‘Man, that thing looks really good.’ You know, for a driver, and I’m sure our team to be able to rely on that, and to make ourselves better for the second Richmond — that makes me feel really optimistic. Rather than just having four of us, if we all ran 15th.”

It feels like SHR is going into race weekends early in the season throwing a bunch of stuff at the walls, and hoping some of it sticks. And guess what, a lot of it has stuck so far. Unlocking the keys to speed at tracks is what the team desperately needed after a trying 2023.

“We just gotta do our homework. We gotta look and take a deep dive and look at what everyone is doing and just try to do it better,” Preece said. “Myself, as the driver, our speed, all of those things. The potential is there, for sure.”

The potential is there. The momentum is building. And Stewart-Haas Racing is regaining something it seemed like they at one point would never lose — confidence.

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