Stewart-Haas Racing enters the 2019 season as the team to beat after all four of their drivers made the playoffs a season ago.
Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Jimmy Johns/Busch Beer Ford (Crew Chief: Rodney Childers)
2018 stats: 3rd in points, 8 wins, 23 top fives, 29 top tens, 4 poles, 51 playoff points
2018 recap: Kevin Harvick led the way for much of the season, having a winner car almost every weekend. At some races, Harvick flat out dominated the competition. A league tying best 8 wins and 51 playoff points positioned Harvick well for his shot at a second Cup Series Championship. In a season full of Ford domination it wasn’t Harvick’s Ford sitting in victory lane at Homestead.
2019 outlook: Will Ford be as dominant in 2019 as they were in 2018? Will Stewart-Haas Racing be the best team again in 2019? Those questions might seem silly after looking at last year’s stats. Then again, Toyota was the team to beat in 2017 and couldn’t match Ford a year ago.
Since his arrival at SHR, Harvick has shown to be the dominant Ford amongst his teammates and the car to beat at most intermediate speedways. That shouldn’t change this season, despite Joey Logano earning his first championship. Harvick will contend for race wins and in all likelihood, will be racing at Homestead for a shot at his second championship again.
Aric Almirola, No. 10 Smithfield Ford (Crew Chief: John Klausmeier)
2018 stats: 5th in points, 1 win, 4 top fives, 17 top tens, 0 poles, 6 playoff points
2018 recap: In his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola exceeded the expectations of many. He had a chance at an even better season too with chances of winning at Chicago, Loudon and Dover after leading more than 40 laps in all three races.
After earning his second career victory at Talladega in the playoffs, Almriola surged to a fifth place finish in the final standings. That was an improvement of his ranking in the final standings from 16th in 2014.
2019 outlook: “The goal is to just be better. If there was a track we struggled at we just had to be better,” said Almirola in advance of the Daytona 500.
“If there were details we missed, we needed to be better. If there were things we did great, we need to identify that and make them even better. I think setting expectations can set you up for failure because you get disappointed when things don’t go your way and you get complacent when you exceed those expectations.”
The expectations for Almriola will be higher than a year ago. Winning more than one race and a deep run in the playoffs will be what this team, and many others, will be looking for.
Clint Bowyer, No. 14 Mobil 1 Ford (Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz)
2018 stats: 12th in points, 2 wins, 9 top fives, 16 top tens, 0 poles, 11 playoff points
2018 recap: Bowyer finally broke a winless streak that went all the way back to 2012. The 2018 season was also his best season statistically since 2013. Bowyer led a total of 490 laps last season. In comparison, Bowyer led a total of 499 laps in the five seasons before. To say 2018 was an improvement would be an understatement.
2019 outlook: Many believed that when Bowyer was tapped to drive the No. 14 Ford after Tony Stewart’s retirement, it would be a great opportunity for Bowyer to showcase his talent. He didn’t disappoint in his second year with SHR.
Now with multiple wins under his belt for SHR, the expectations will be a deeper run in the playoffs.
“We want to win races, develop consistency and peak around the time the playoffs start,” said Bowyer in his pre-race advance. “We improved a lot last year and plan to keep that going this year. I know (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) and everyone at SHR, plus the Roush-Yates guys, have worked really hard in the offseason to keep us going. That hard work will pay off.”
Bowyer has struggled with consistency since his arrival at SHR. If that can be avoided during crucial times, such as the playoffs, then this team could find themselves as a championship contender.
Daniel Suarez, No. 41 AARIS Ford (Crew Chief: Billy Scott)
2018 stats: 21st in points, 0 wins, 3 top fives, 9 top tens, 1 pole, 0 playoff points
2018 recap: It’s no secret that Suarez struggled in 2018. All three of his teammates won races and made the playoffs. Suarez failed to do either. He didn’t live up to the expectations placed on him in his second full-time season at JGR. Although he increased his top-five finishes by two, his average finish worsened by more than two positions and he had three fewer top-10 finishes.
2019 outlook: A change of scenery from Joe Gibbs Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing might be what Suarez needs. There are many parallels to Suarez’s move and when Joey Logano left JGR for Team Penske. Much like Logano, Suarez was moved up to Cup relatively quickly and couldn’t quite find the speed of his teammates.
“Racing for wins week in and week out. SHR was able to do that not only with one car but all of their cars, which is very impressive to me,” said Suarez in advance of the Daytona 500.
“The goal is to continue to grow with this team and continue to learn from these guys. I have learned a lot. They obviously do things a little bit different from what I’m used to and there are a lot of things that they’re trying.”
Suarez will enter as a driver on a team that has playoff expectations and has a real opportunity to make his first NASCAR playoff appearance.
Follow Matt on Twitter, @mattlovisa.