NASCAR: Las Vegas raises serious questions about SHR narrative

Noah Gragson finished in sixth place for Stewart-Haas Racing team believed by many to not be much of a factor heading into the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Noah Gragson, Stewart-Haas Racing, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR
Noah Gragson, Stewart-Haas Racing, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR / Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

All offseason, there was a narrative surrounding Stewart-Haas Racing that they were going to experience a disaster of a 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Following their first ever winless season since Tony Stewart became a co-owner, I personally did not see a path for any of the team's four drivers to qualify for the playoffs, barring a crazy upset win at a superspeedway or something.

Stewart-Haas Racing are no strangers to driver changes, having left their entire four-driver lineup intact just once since 2016. But amid a seemingly ongoing decline that dates back to Kevin Harvick's shocking round of 8 elimination in 2020, they were faced with a considerable rebuild in 2024.

Josh Berry was called upon to replace Harvick, a future Hall of Famer, and Noah Gragson, who was set to be released by Legacy Motor Club at the end of the 2023 season even before he was effectively fired for "liking" an inappropriate meme, was called upon to replace Aric Almirola, the team's other veteran who also decided that it was time to scale back.

That left Chase Briscoe, who had won just one race in his first three seasons with the team, and Ryan Preece, who only arrived in 2023, as the team's two veteran drivers.

Make no mistake about it; the start of the 2024 season has been a struggle. Among the new quartet, only Berry and Briscoe entered the 2023 season's third race with positive points, as Gragson and Preece were both docked 35 points after the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Briscoe leads the team in 20th place in the point standings, 10 places higher than he finished last year, and is the only team member higher than 30th.

But Gragson's performance at Las Vegas Motor Speedway raised some eyebrows.

As a four-turn, 1.5-mile (2.414-kilometer) track, the Las Vegas, Nevada fits the description of a typical NASCAR track. It is by all means a "cookie cutter" track; unlike Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was not recently repaved and reconfigured to basically transform it into a mini–Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway.

Drivers, teams, and fans entered Sunday's Pennzoil 400 knowing that it marked the start of the "real" season, per se, in that the event would provide a much more accurate indication of where the teams and drivers are at performance-wise, compared to the two drafting races at Daytona and Atlanta to start the season.

After starting in 32nd place, Gragson finished in sixth. The driver of the No. 10 Ford has recorded two finishes this season, and they have produced results of ninth and sixth. No driver has more than two top 10 finishes, and if not for his Atlanta points penalty, he would be leading the team in 19th in the standings.

Excluding penalties, Briscoe would be in 21st place, Preece would be in 25th, and Berry would be in 32nd.

With two-thirds of the team's top 10 finishes, despite being knocked out of contention in the Atlanta race on only the second lap, Gragson's performance raises the question of whether Stewart-Haas Racing's recent "decline" has really been a true decline or if it has simply been down to an overall a lack of talent.

Despite being at the tail end of his career, Harvick still managed to win twice in 2022, and he managed to get to the playoffs in all three seasons after 2020. Last year, the 2014 champion and 60-time race winner was the team's only playoff driver.

Briscoe is the only other playoff driver they have had since 2022, and he would not have even made it two years ago if not for his win at Phoenix Raceway.

Yes, he ended up advancing all the way to the round of 8, but that was more about getting hot at the right time than anything else. Until his surprising round of 12 performance, he had a 21-race stretch during which he recorded only a single top 12 finish.

Gragson has as many top 10 finishes in 13 days as Preece has since joining Stewart-Haas Racing 39 races ago, and he has done it despite having been completely and consistently outclassed at a much slower Legacy Motor Club team (at the time) by teammate Erik Jones. He recorded two top 20 finishes -- neither higher than 12th place -- in 21 starts before his release.

How much stock can we really put into Gragson's Las Vegas performance?

Sure, Las Vegas is a solid indicator, but we need to see more than one race -- and no, a ninth place finish in the "wild card" race that is the Daytona 500 isn't that one other race. Gragson's sixth place finish at Las Vegas was certainly a welcome surprise, but it's not enough to suggest that blame for Stewart-Haas Racing's decline should be placed squarely on their drivers.

It is, enough, however, to raise the question heading into the upcoming stretch of races. Stewart said before the season that if the team are unable to turn things around from the last few seasons, changes would be coming.

At the very least, perhaps some of Stewart-Haas Racing's seats are starting to get warm -- yet again.

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Phoenix Raceway, a uniquely-shaped 1.058-mile oval, is scheduled to host the season's fourth race on Sunday, March 10. Fox is set to provide live coverage starting at 3:30 p.m. ET. Begin a free trial of FuboTV and don't miss it!