NASHVILLE—Stewart-Haas Racing announced wholesale changes of its driver/crew chief lineups on Wednesday.
With the exception of Championship 4 contenders Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers, who remain together, the Nos. 10, 14, 41 teams—all which were winless in 2019—will have different leaders atop the respective pit boxes next year. In essence, Mike Bugarewicz and Johnny Klausmeier will swap drivers. Mike Shiplett will accompany Cole Custer from the Xfinity Series to Cup.
Although three drivers qualified for the Playoffs this season, SHR’s performance paled in comparison with 2018, when the company scored 12 wins and all four teams qualified for the post-season.
“Our biggest asset at Stewart-Haas Racing is our people, and we strive to put each person in the best position to succeed,” said Greg Zipadelli, Vice President of Competition, SHR. “Our driver/crew chief pairings for next season reflect this ideology, and we believe this lineup provides the best opportunity to win every time we unload our Ford Mustangs at the racetrack.”
Aric Almirola will be paired with Bugarewicz in 2020. Almirola, who finished fifth in the 2018 standings, had high expectations entering the season with the return of Johnny Klausmeier as his crew chief. Yet after six top-10 finishes in the first seven races, the team fell off a cliff.
“The beginning of the year went really well,” Almirola said. “We rattled off six top 10s in a row. I felt really good as a race team and where we were headed then things fell off the track.”
Almirola ended the year with just three top-five finishes and 12 top 10s. Although he qualified for the Playoffs for the third time in eight years, that’s not enough consolation for the 35-year-old racer.
“Well, I think it really just goes back to trying to be better, just trying to make the whole organization better,” Almirola said. “Everyone in management talked a lot about the changes—and how do we make everyone in the organization better. Quite honestly, and to be transparent, how to make everybody step up to the level of that No. 4 (Harvick) team with inside our four walls.
“They felt like it would be a good move to shake things up between the 14 team and the 10 team—create a new dynamic and see if that sparks some better performance. I’m excited about it. I’ve already spoken with “Buga” and we’re ready to hit the ground running and build on the success that I’ve already had at SHR.”
After a two-victory season in 2018, Bowyer’s performance was lackluster as well. He failed to win and ended the year with an average finish of 15.2.
“Success is in the people,” Bowyer said. “It’s still hard to find that chemistry. As long as I’ve been doing it, it’s all about chemistry and finding the right people and the right match to find success on a consistent basis.
“You look at teams like Kevin and Rodney and the success they’ve had. When we’re in meetings, they click. All the successful pairings are that way. This is an effort to find a little bit more of that fit factor. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s a good thing for all of us. It was the right move. I’m definitely excited about what’s to come and get started with Johnny and those guys.”
Bugarewicz has overseen Bowyer’s program since the driver arrived at SHR in 2017. The pair failed to qualify for the Playoffs that year and went winless in two of the three seasons. At times, the relationship appeared strained, and Bugarewicz showed little patience for Bowyer’s antics.
“Sometimes we’re too much the same," Bowyer said. "When I get fired up, he’s fired up. You need a little bit of that ‘opposites attract’ deal. It’s like a marriage. If you’re the same, usually sparks will fly. Eventually, one thing will lead to another and one of you is headed out.”
Custer attempts his quest for 2020 Cup rookie honors with Shiplett, who led the 21-year-old to a career-best seven win season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year. Andy Houston will be Custer’s spotter when he debuts in the No. 41 Ford at Daytona in February.