DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The questions surrounding Stewart-Haas Racing have little to do with whether Tony Stewart can bounce back from a broken right leg or if Danica Patrick is capable of winning a Sprint Cup race.
Stewart has long been one of NASCAR’s combustible figures, and Patrick is a lightning rod for attention, positive and negative.
Throw in Harvick, whose nickname “Happy” was coined as a good-natured dig at his moodiness and occasional temper tantrums, and Busch, who was known for arguing with crew chiefs at Penske Racing and suspended for a race by NASCAR after two post-race altercations in 2012, and this team could turn into a three-ring circus in a hurry.
As a whole, the team has combined for 90 Sprint Cup victories and four Cup championships (three by Stewart, one by Busch). And Stewart is counting on the drivers’ talent, not temperament.
“We are putting a collection of talent together,” Stewart said. “There are flaws in all of us. As much as people are making it out to be a recipe for disaster, I think it’s the opposite. Kurt, Kevin and I … have had our less-than-stellar moments, but the good thing is because of that we all understand each other and what it was that put us in those situations.
“Danica had to go through the same thing during her time in IndyCar, and she deals with a lot of pressure here. All four of us understand the challenges we face and, because of that, there is almost a peace of mind in knowing that if we’re in a tough situation, we have teammates we can talk to … as a support system.”
Busch, who was run off by Penske after the 2011 season and spent the last two seasons toiling with smaller-budget, one-car operations, understands the cynicism.
“I love how there’s this perception that we won’t be able to get along and there’s going to be constant fighting,” said Busch, the team’s best qualifier for Sunday’s Daytona 500 in the eighth position. “I think Tony expressed it the best and said we all know one another better than anybody else because we have the same characteristics, and we have that same fire and desire to compete from within.
“I’m going to go back to when I was with my brother (Kyle) on the Nationwide team. We didn’t have the best of years, and that would have actually challenged us to not get along and to be at odds with one another. We handled it really well and, at the end of the year, it got swept under the rug. So there’s usually a lot of speculation about a fictitious moment that might happen.”
Larry McReynolds, a former Sprint Cup-champion crew chief and now an analyst for Fox Sports, is willing to give this mercurial group of drivers the benefit of the doubt.
“The more I’ve watched and observed and listened, I really believe it’s going to be a good, solid deal,” McReynolds said. “If you look at those four drivers, for different reasons, they need to make this work. They have to make it work.
“Kurt Busch is driving for his fourth team in four years; he’s running out of places to go. Harvick just left an organization where he had won (19) races. He finished third in the points in three of the last four years. Kevin cannot let this fail. Tony Stewart is with his third crew chief in six years, and let’s face it, his name is partially above the door of that organization. He has to make it work.”
Harvick, 38, signed with Stewart-Haas before the 2013 season as a replacement for Ryan Newman and finished third in the Chase as a lame-duck for Richard Childress Racing. Busch, 35, was added to the team by Stewart’s partner, Gene Haas, late last year, maxing out the number of drivers one team can have.
That can level the playing field when competing against the four-team monster of Hendrick Motorsports and three-car operations of Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
“Big teams have the advantage over the little teams as far as quantity,” said Busch, who won the 2004 championship with Roush and spent six years in the two-car garage of Penske Racing. “You’re able to go to the track and gather information quicker and have more people to filter through it. “
Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, also an analyst for Fox Sports, said the quality of the Stewart-Haas drivers is a good problem to have.
“When can you have too much talent on one team?” Waltrip asked. “They’ve assembled a lot of talent in a lot of different ways. They are some highly paid drivers; they’re superstars in our sport. I think they’ll get along fine. We’ll have to see who wants to be the ‘A’ driver on the Stewart-Haas team — that will be the motivation.”
Stewart, who missed the last 15 races last year after suffering a broken leg in a Sprint Car accident, won the 2011 Cup championship in the third year after he broke off from Joe Gibbs and formed Stewart-Haas Racing. So he is optimistic about his team’s prospects.
“Every week, we for sure have three guys who can go out and win a race, and Danica has got potential to be more consistent this year,” said Stewart, 42. “She’s got three teammates who are going to be behind her 100 percent. Realistically, we could get three cars in the Chase. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
“I’d almost be a little disappointed if all three of these cars don’t make the Chase by the end of the year. It’s not that we’re discounting Danica, but it’s still a work in progress. She’s still learning.”
Patrick, whose eighth-place finish at Daytona last year was the best finish by a female in the history of the race, and her best result of the season, doesn’t dispute Stewart’s frank assessment.
“You’re always going to get honesty from all of us,” said Patrick, 31. “That’s the truth. I’m not there yet. I’m not in a position to win every weekend. That’s going to take some time. I’m in a fortunate position that I have three teammates who can win every weekend and make it to the Chase. That’s incredible for me to be able to learn from them. And (they are) very strong characters that are going to really help the team go in the right direction and teach me how to do that.”
Harvick has been impressed with the resources the company has to compete for a title.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is whatever you need, whoever you need… go get it and let’s figure out how to make this all happen,” Harvick said. “That part to me has been fun. Everything on our car is brand-new … from the hauler to every race car, every nut and bolt in the drawer. They’ve put an unbelievable effort into it.”
An effort, that McReynolds said could pay off quickly.
“They’re going to drive each other; they’re going to push each other to move forward in a positive way,” McReynolds said. “We’re going to be surprised by the success of Stewart-Haas.”