NASCAR: The driver change that could hurt worse than it looks

Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Aric Almirola leaving Stewart-Haas Racing may not seem like a huge deal, but they are now set to enter a full-on rebuild without a true veteran in the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Driver changes are nothing new for Stewart-Haas Racing. After six of the last seven NASCAR Cup Series seasons, they have altered their lineup. Since 2016, the only time they entered a season with the same driver lineup as the previous year was in 2022.

But during this seven-year stint, they never made more than one change in a single offseason. That is set to change this year.

Kevin Harvick announced before the 2023 season began that it would be his last, and Josh Berry was eventually named his replacement behind the wheel of the No. 4 Ford.

Throughout much of silly season, there was speculation regarding whether or not Aric Almirola would make the same decision as Harvick. After all, he had initially planned on retiring at the end of the 2022 season, only to change his mind in the middle of the year and return for a sixth season behind the wheel of the No. 10 Ford in 2023.

Almirola ultimately opted to take a step back from driving full-time, and while he hasn’t officially retired, he will not be back with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2024.

While Almirola is by no means a world-beater, having won just twice in six seasons with the team and not won or made the playoffs since 2021, the loss of the 39-year-old Fort Walton Beach, Florida native may hurt Stewart-Haas Racing a lot more than it looks on the surface.

It is no secret that Stewart-Haas Racing have struggled mightily over the last few NASCAR Cup Series seasons.

The 2023 season was their first winless season since 2008, at which point they had literally never won a Cup Series race in their history.

They have tallied just four total wins since the start of the 2021 campaign. From 2014 to 2020, they had five individual seasons with more than four wins, including two double-digit winning seasons from 2018 to 2020 alone. At no point did they finish a season with fewer than three victories.

The loss of Harvick was always going to be impactful. You simply can’t replace a former champion and one of the top 10 all-time winningest drivers in the sport and expect to see the same productivity from the No. 4 team.

With Harvick’s departure, especially amid a time of struggle, Stewart-Haas Racing knew they were going to be entering somewhat of a rebuild.

Harvick has largely carried the load for Stewart-Haas Racing over the last few seasons — even before their mega drop-off from 2020 to 2021 — and that was the case again in 2023, as he was the team’s lone playoff driver.

Now with Almirola leaving as well, Stewart-Haas Racing’s driver lineup is seeing its biggest change at a time when there is already skepticism over their ability to reestablish themselves as a contending team.

Again, it’s not like Almirola is a championship contender. It’s not like his inclusion in the team’s lineup is going to strike fear into the hearts of rival teams. He is and pretty much always has been a mid-pack driver.

But losing that veteran presence and underrated consistency could hurt Stewart-Haas Racing a lot more than it would indicate on paper, especially as they prepare to enter a season in which Chase Briscoe, who only joined the team in 2021, is their longest tenured driver.

Even on paper, Almirola was still the top Stewart-Haas Racing driver other than Harvick in the point standings in 2023 — and would have been even if Briscoe had not received a 120-point penalty earlier in the season.

Briscoe has one win and one playoff appearance in three seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing. Preece has never won nor made the playoffs in four career Cup Series seasons, including his first with Stewart-Haas Racing. Berry’s career is limited to a few select starts as a replacement driver.

Noah Gragson has been linked to Stewart-Haas Racing as Almirola’s replacement, but just how will that turn out? Even before he was released by Legacy Motor Club after “liking” an inappropriate meme on social media, he was rumored to lose his seat due to underperformance.

He had scored just two top 20 finishes in 21 starts, and some simply think Legacy Motor Club utilized a convenient excuse to cut ties with him early. While it was Gragson himself who ultimately requested his release, he presumably did so knowing that he was going to be replaced anyway.

Next. All-time NASCAR Cup Series wins list. dark

I don’t think it’s all that bold to suggest that Stewart-Haas Racing will miss the playoffs entirely in 2024. I don’t even think it’s all that bold to suggest that they will miss the top 20 in the point standings. All things considered, Almirola’s departure could not have come at a worse time.