Amy Henderson · Tuesday January 28, 2014
Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and puts together a list of five people, places, things, and ideas surrounding a piece of the sport. In the latest edition, Amy takes a look at a revamped Stewart-Haas Racing organization and why this team bears watching as 2014 looms.
1. Smoke is back.
Stewart was still in bed recuperating from a broken leg suffered in a sprint car race when co-owner Gene Haas sprung the news that SHR would expand to four teams in 2014. Now, five months and many hours of physical therapy later, Stewart will climb back into his No. 14 machine just in time for Speedweeks in Daytona. Not only does Stewart have a burning desire to show that he’s back and as good as ever at age 42, but he has teammates who want to help him do that—Kurt Busch, in particular, worked hard to gather information for Stewart’s team in a handful of test sessions during the off-season, and team members reiterated the importance of information sharing as well.
Teammates aside, there is no more tenacious driver in the sport than Smoke, and he’s coming out swinging. A three-time Cup champion, Stewart lacks—and badly wants—a Daytona 500 win. He’s as good as anyone at Daytona, and this time around, he just might want it more than anyone. That’s powerful motivation, and motivation can produce results. Results, in turn, can produce momentum, and well, we all know what Smoke can do with a little momentum. Bottom line: Stewart is hungry as both owner and driver…and a hungry Smoke is usually a scary thing for the competition.
2. Kurt Busch has grown up.
Busch is always going to be volatile and passionate. That’s simply a part of who he is. Does it make it hard on his race teams? Sure; there are times that it has to. But Busch has been humbled by the past couple of seasons, seasons where the big teams with the big sponsors wouldn’t touch him not because of the way he races (that has, after all, made Busch a champion) but because of his actions and words.
Busch feels as though, ten seasons after his Sprint Cup championship season on 2004, he’s in the best position he’s ever been in.
“I would say this is the best I’ve ever felt prepared going into a season with past experiences, ith a competitive team, with understanding the full system to be competitive in this sport,” Busch said Monday during the NASCAR Media Tour. “When you have a Hendrick car and a Hendrick motor to start with, that’s not a bad thing. Then you have Tony Stewart as a teammate. You have Kevin Harvick who believes in this system here. We have to feed off of one another to make this SHR branch stronger. And then there’s going to come a time this summer when we’re each going to find our own identity and we’re going to have our own situations gong, and I hope we’re all competing against each other and take as many spots as we can in that Chase and throughout the Chase to advance toward a championship run.”
Busch has the talent to win another title; that’s never been in doubt. Now, it looks as though he has the fortitude to back up the talent and work with a team for the first time since 2011. He’s going to be a threat from Daytona to Homestead.
3. So has Kevin Harvick-and his commitment to a title is stronger than ever.
Harvick has been a driver on the verge of greatness almost since he entered the Cup Series in 2001…yet he hasn’t quite gotten there. If it was equipment holding him back (and Hendrick equipment is a step up, even from elite Richard Childress Racing), then Harvick will contend for a title from day one. He’s in the prime of his career right now. He has earned the reputation of the closer—the driver who is always there at the end when the opportunity is ripe for the picking—honestly. Harvick is a legitimate threat for race wins, and despite distractions and conflict over the years, he’s come tantalizingly close to a title a couple of times. Now, Harvick, older and wiser, understands how to race for one…and he wants it so badly it’s become a driving force.
He knows it won’t be easy. “It’s week to week. I feel like our cars are going to be fast, but I’m also very realistic knowing that there are going to be some hurdles to overcome, which there are every season,” Harvick said Monday. “You have to navigate through things, so we just have to make sure we take the bull by the horns and navigate through correctly…I’m trying not to be overconfident about everything I’ve done with this team so far because it’s gone so well, it’s kind of scary, actually. (A championship) is all I can think about. It’s the one trophy in racing I feel like has eluded my trophy case. I’d like to see it put in there sooner rather than later, but that drive and determination is very motivating. There’s always going to be pressure. You’re always going to put pressure on yourself to go out and win races and do better and finish better and always try to do better than you did last week. “ It’s exactly that mindset that wins races and will make Harvick a title favorite from day one.
4. Co-owner Gene Haas is committed.
Sure, Haas, has always been committed, even before he partnered with Stewart. But heading into 2014, Haas redoubled his investment, making the decision to expand the team and fund the No. 41 for Kurt Busch out of his own pocket. The decision didn’t sit well with co-owner Stewart at first, and who could blame him after he had said just weeks before that there wasn’t backing to add a fourth team, leading to the release of Ryan Newman—but Haas wanted the 2004 champion in the fold badly enough that he came up with the funds and made the waves.
Yes, Haas’ decision has the potential to make some waves—adding the volatile Busch to an already notoriously hotheaded lineup could be the recipe for disaster. But the team doesn’t think that way—they see the strong personalities of Stewart, Harvick, Busch, and Danica Patrick as a unifying factor. After all, they understand each other’s drive. Will there be conflict? It is a definite possibility, especially if there’s an on-track incident. But if the drivers can channel their aggression in the right direction…they are dangerous, and Haas wasn’t afraid to mix ingredients to bring it all to a boiling point.
5. Hendrick backing.
This one’s pretty obvious, but it bears repeating: this team runs equipment that has won seven of the last eight championships, including the 2011 title for Stewart. The cars are fast and handle well, and the power and durability of Hendrick engines are second to none. SHR shares information with Hendrick Motorsports on a weekly basis. SHR simply needs to capitalize on that—and they can. 2013 wasn’t a great showing, but there were extenuating circumstances: one driver injured as the team was heating up and the other suddenly a lame duck. Now, there are four drivers with nothing to lose…and everything to prove. And they’re in arguably the best race cars in the sport. NASCAR Nation had better pay attention to what they do next.
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