MARTINSVILLE, Va. — With all four Stewart-Haas Racing entries qualifying inside the top seven, Sunday seemed bound to be a statement day for the organization.
But despite combining to lead 264 of 400 laps at Martinsville Speedway, the final running order didn’t quite reflect a breakout race for SHR.
Ryan Preece scored his first career pole in the NASCAR Cup Series and proceeded to lead the first 135 laps of Sunday’s race. Chase Briscoe led a career-high 109 circuits around the 0.526-mile oval. Kevin Harvick paced the field for 20 laps, and veteran Aric Almirola netted the race’s best average running position at 4.76 — 0.01 better than Briscoe.
At the checkered flag, though, Briscoe was the only SHR driver bringing home a top-five finish. Almirola was sixth, but Preece and Harvick both finished outside the top 10 — 15th and 20th, respectively.
“We led the wrong handful of laps,” said Greg Zipadelli, chief competition officer at SHR. “We did (do well) as a group, but it’s really frustrating when you have little things that cost you.
“It was nice to see all four cars qualify well, and they all raced well. But this is a little bit different race track. It’s not like you can take what you did here and go anywhere else with it. So everybody at the shop is working hard and appreciate their effort, and to have four of them qualify up there and lead a bunch of laps.
“Just, man, we gotta get this monkey off our back and win a race.”
Preece’s day went south at Lap 135. His No. 41 Ford led the field onto pit road under caution for Harrison Burton’s spin. But parked at pit stall No. 2 — the first available stall from pit exit thanks to his pole position — Preece launched out of his pit stall in an attempt to win the race off pit road, incurring a speeding penalty that sent him to the rear of the field for the impending restart. Pitting so close to the end of pit road, Preece “didn’t think we could” speed from that pit box.
“But I guess it’s my job to know that,” Preece said. “It’s unfortunate, but when we had track position, I think it showed that we had a really fast HaasTooling Ford Mustang, but you can’t do those things. You can’t make mistakes.”
Mired in traffic, Preece only charged to the brink of the top 20 until the final run to the checkers, unable to work through the thicket of cars ahead of him.
“That first run, I think we climbed to 23rd or 21st, so I thought there was opportunity,” Preece said of his comeback. “But after three pit stops, everybody else got their car that much better. You saw Joey (Logano), they stayed out and gained track position, and he ran second. I mean, he was gonna go a lap down for a while, so you can’t make mistakes.”
Harvick was a legitimate contender all day, leading 19 laps in Stage 2 en route to his first stage win since 2020. During green-flag pit stops around Lap 300, Harvick was set to cycle to the lead before a Lap 303 caution. But after pitting under caution at Lap 344 and exiting fourth, Harvick immediately cut a right-front tire, relegating the 2014 champion to the rear of the field as he pitted a second time.
Stewart-Haas Racing has shown early speed with the debut of this year’s short-track package, with Harvick nearly victorious at Phoenix Raceway before an impressive showing by all four drivers at Martinsville.
That, in part, adds to Sunday’s sting as none of them broke through for the victory.
“For us as a company, we knew that short tracks (are) where we were really going to need to capitalize,” Briscoe said. “And that’s where it’s kind of frustrating knowing that we didn’t lock ourselves in today when we had a great opportunity.”
Since the beginning of the 2021 season, SHR has combined to win just four races — Almirola’s New Hampshire triumph, Briscoe’s inaugural Cup win at Phoenix in March 2022 and Harvick’s back-t0-back victories at Richmond and Michigan last summer. To see all four cars with speed again was encouraging for the program despite the end results.
“It was a really good day for Stewart-Haas,” Briscoe said. “It’s kind of the Stewart-Haas that there was three or four years ago, right? And it was nice to kind of see that again. So yeah, really good day for the company. I just wish that one of us was taking home the grandmother clock.
“I felt like a Stewart-Haas car probably should have won the race, and we just couldn’t catch the breaks we needed there at the end. But, overall, a great day. That’s something that, as a company, we needed to go and run up front. All four cars were really competitive. I wish one of us would have won the race, but you’ll have that.”
In nine races, Almirola’s sixth-place finish at Martinsville is his only top 10. The No. 10 team has suffered five finishes of 30th or worse, saddling Almirola with a 23.9 average finish, the worst of his full-time career. But while he may have been the company’s lone driver not to lead Sunday’s race, his race-best average running position was no accident — and, indeed, it was a necessary performance.
“We just had a few things throughout the race that if we could go back and do different, we’re sitting in Victory Lane,” Almirola said. “I feel very confident in that. I think we were arguably the best car throughout the day. At different points, we were maybe a third- or fourth-place car, but for most of the day, we were the best race car on the race track and just didn’t put the whole thing together. But it’s nice to be frustrated with a sixth after the start of the season we’ve had.”
The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Zipadelli is cautiously optimistic the momentum built at Martinsville might carry to the high-banked superspeedway.
“We’ve got to work on the intermediate (tracks). We’ve got a speedway next week,” he said. “Our cars were pretty good there so far this year. So hopefully, we go there and capitalize.”