Tony Stewart sets record straight on SHR struggles, hands-off approach

'Smoke' says the status quo is no longer acceptable

NHRA: Thunder Valley Nationals
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Stewart has high hopes for Stewart Haas Racing ahead of the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season but is very adamant that the results are not going to be a byproduct of whatever presence he does or doesn’t have.

To say the past two seasons have been a disappointment for everyone at SHR would be an understatement, but there is a narrative out there that things would be better if the three-time Cup Series champion was more hands-on and he rejects it.

“We’ve had two miserable years in a row (but) I’m tired of getting asked or tired of taking the blame from everybody (about) why the cars aren’t running good,” Stewart said. “It’s like, I think the fans need a reality check and a reminder that I am not the crew chief.

“I’m not the engineer. I don’t dictate the setups on the cars. I give these guys the tools to do the job and we just haven’t got it done the past couple of years.

“But I am excited about the energy at the shop. We kind of had a rah-rah meeting and I will say (that) having four young drivers in the shop, as much as I was really nervous about it, I’m really excited about the energy that it’s brought to the shop.”

It’s a new look Stewart Haas Racing this year with veterans Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola leaving full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition. Harvick has joined the FOX Sports television booth and Almirola has opted to run a part-time Xfinity Series campaign for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Josh Berry and Noah Gragson have joined returning drivers Chase Briscoe and Ryan Preece to comprise a lineup that has a high ceiling but also a degree of uncertainty.

“Kevin and Aric were great leaders and nobody felt worse about it at the end of the year than I did about those guys moving on to the next step in their lives,” Stewart said. “But it’s hard to sit there and be too upset about it because I understand when and why I made that decision too.

“So, you have to support them on it. But, you know, having four young drivers isn’t something I thought I would have. But I will say it has been a surprise and a shock and a pleasant surprise that the energy these guys have brought to the race shop this off-season.”

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Credit: Bob Goshert/For IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

This is actually the third year in a row that SHR just hasn’t met its expectations as a contender. The first came in 2021, the final year of the previous generation car, and the results of a development freeze prior to transitioning to the NextGen.

But then came the NextGen and SHR just couldn’t immediately master it. Briscoe won early in 2022 while teams were still learning the car and Harvick won twice later in the summer. The organization went winless for the first time in 15 years last year.

Stewart doesn’t expect an immediate complete turnaround but does want to see gradual process.

“If we’re not having the results we’re looking for, we’re going to start making some major changes,” Stewart said. “Everyone knows that. Everybody understands that. It’s those guys’ jobs at SHR to take what we have and make it better. It doesn’t mean we have to go out and win 8-10 races this season but we need to see the needle move in the right direction.

“We need to make progress. Last year, two years ago, the first year with a new car, you can understand that you might have an off-season trying to figure out a new product. But to have that bad of a season two years in a row, we will not stand for that and let that be the standard.”

And again, that doesn’t mean that Stewart needs to suddenly interject himself into the engineers or crew chief’s room because he hired them to be what he can’t.

“That’s the part that absolutely baffles me,” Stewart said. “When I am at the racetrack, there’s nothing I do. I just follow along and watch and cheerlead.

“I mean, that’s my job on race weekends. So, it doesn’t matter whether I’m there or not. The performance isn’t going to change if I’m there or if I’m absent.

“But, you know, I have the opportunity to do some pretty neat stuff this year and drive a car the fastest I’ll ever drive in my life and I’m not going to sit there and worry about what everybody else thinks about whether I’m there or not.

“If you have half a brain, you’re going to understand how this all works and realize that, you know, we may not be at the track, but we’re not absent from what’s going on.”

The man they call Smoke is referencing his full-time debut entry into the NHRA Top Fuel division in 2024. This follows a successful stint in the Top Alcohol Dragster division. He’s in the car previously piloted by his wife, Leah Pruett, who is taking time away to give birth to the couple’s first child.

NHRA: Nevada Nationals
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Stewart said he never would have predicted he would have ever progressed to the point where a full-time ride in a top-level division would have been plausible. He recalled a test session with team owner Rich ‘Pops’ McPhillips when Smoke was told he could contend for wins.

“That really caught me off guard because all I had done is just practice and test laps by myself,” Stewart said. “To hear him have that confidence and then Leah kind of backed it up so that’s when we felt the time was right to enter that first race when the opening came up.

“And then we almost won and talked about making a serious go of it last year and run the fill season and see if we could contend for the championship. We had a couple stumbles across the way but for the most part, we kept them honest for quite a while and still had a second place in the championship.”

So Stewart hopes to make steady progress in Top Fuel in 2024 and hopes to see something close to the same in the NASCAR program he co-owns with Gene Haas as well.

“We’ve got a lot of banners hanging from the ceiling that show that we know how to do it right,” Stewart said. “We got two of those banners that show that we know how to do it right for an entire season so it’s not that we don’t know how to do it. It’s just a matter of putting it together.

“This new car has really been a struggle for our organization. It’s like I told our guys, everything is in front of us now. There is nothing behind us. We’re not looking at someone chasing us down. We are at the bottom of the barrel, in my opinion, and performance is already in the tank.

“So I told them to not look behind us, don’t look over your shoulder and to have everyone’s back in this room.”

Stewart said he felt like the message resonated.  

“Not that they haven’t been working hard before but they are going to have to find something, or we’ll find people that will find it, because we can’t, we can’t perform at this level. It’s, it’s just not acceptable anymore.”

To that end, Stewart hopes a reset associated with the new Mustang Dark Horse body will get them back to even with the other Ford teams after a frustrating two-year stint with its predecessor.

“I think that’s going to help us a bunch,” Stewart said. “I mean, we were at a distinct disadvantage. Granted, Ford won a championship but that’s also the group that’s in charge of the aero program too. You can kind of read between the lines there.

“We keep working at it and we’re proud that Ford won the championship but we want to be in that mix as well.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

Mentioned in this article:

More About: