Commentary

SHR might not be the circus it seems

Updated: January 19, 2014, 1:47 AM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

Danica PatrickChris Graythen/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick and Tony Stewart are the two drivers returning to the SHR lineup for 2014. They did not have the kind of seasons they hoped for in 2013.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kurt Busch calls them charismatic. They are that, and more.

They are individually competitive, demanding and blunt, which are all virtues in a team sport of applied selfishness. Collectively, they form one compelling and potentially combustible collection of skills and personalities.

But Stewart-Haas Racing's house of characters is not necessarily a house of cards. Time and maturity have primed the moment, Busch said, for a grand chemistry experiment between co-owner/driver Tony Stewart, 42; Kevin Harvick, 38; Busch, 35; and Danica Patrick, 31. This, he said, is going to work.

"We have four cars here, and we all have our own identities with our own teams," Busch said. "We can all be in this situation now with what we've all been through, as far as our age and just the experiences that we've been through on the track and off the track.

"I think 10 years ago this wouldn't have worked."

Or even eight years ago. Not between Harvick and Busch, who had been foes on the developmental circuits of the Southwest -- Harvick is from Bakersfield, Calif., and Busch from Las Vegas -- and began their full-time Sprint Cup careers in 2001.

They contested the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award -- won by Harvick -- and became rancorous rivals, winners at NASCAR's highest level almost simultaneously. Harvick missed few chances to skewer Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion, concocting derisive nicknames and opining in 2006 that he wished he had "whupped" him.

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR/Getty ImagesKurt Busch might have been a surprise addition to the 2014 SHR driver lineup, but that doesn't mean he was an unwelcomed one.

But years, fatherhood, and the experiences of starting and then shuttering a NASCAR team appear to have beveled some of the jagged edges off Harvick. He appears legitimately giddy about the prospect of starting anew at SHR after an emotional and sometimes contentious end to his 15-year career at Richard Childress Racing.

The reconstitution of Busch led him to SHR, as well. He left Team Penske after their ill-matched relationship eroded by the end of 2011, slogged his way back to a power team after spending two seasons with less-resourced teams. He divorced, then entered into a serious relationship in which he has become a father figure to a young boy.

Qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup with one-car Furniture Row Racing last year provided an avenue back to a Sprint Cup megateam, albeit one that struggled in 2013.

Although the additions of Harvick and Patrick were all part of a long-range SHR growth strategy -- which includes a massive shop expansion outside of Charlotte -- Busch's arrival was more of a surprise pregnancy, conceived by co-owner Gene Haas and delivered while Stewart was recuperating from a racing accident in August.

Busch's arrival could have been a complication, considering his past with Harvick, but the pair had begun to disarm last season. Furniture Row's technical alliance with RCR had made Harvick and Busch teammates by extension, and, by their accounts, it worked. Harvick predicts it will work at SHR as the team expands to a fourth program.

"I've worked with Kurt, and obviously I know what he brings to the table as a driver and from the information standpoint; he is very good with the cars and understanding what is going on," Harvick said. "The commitment that everyone has made, especially from the financial standpoint, to make sure we eliminate some of those bumps in the road has been fairly obvious with the short amount of time, and the way things have transpired has taken a lot of those bumps out of the road.

"Obviously, there are still going to be bumps in the road and there's still going to be a transition, but everything is pretty new from a competition standpoint, from cars to people to things that are going on, so … I don't know that adding a fourth team would have been any different from what they would have done last year to this year, knowing they changed some stuff from the competition standpoint. They probably would have had to change [for] three [cars] anyway, so it was probably easier [adding a fourth team] starting from scratch."

Underlying the professional relationship of SHR's lineup is a series of interconnecting personal ones, with the junior member of the team interwoven through them all.

Stewart was Patrick's role model as a young open-wheel driver and sought counsel from him before switching to NASCAR and ultimately his team as a Cup rookie full time beginning last season.

She befriended Busch in her first season in the Nationwide Series as he drove his brother Kyle's race car part time. And Patrick became fast friends with Harvick and his wife, DeLana.

The four-driver SHR lineup is reminiscent of the roguish band including Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti with which Patrick enjoyed her best statistical IndyCar seasons with Andretti Autosport in the late 2000s.

"I know all of them pretty well on their own, so I feel like we're going to have a lot of fun," Patrick said. "I feel like everybody is going to have their opinions, but I feel like there's a lot of respect in the camp, and I think it's going to lead to progress, to be honest."

Respect for Stewart, who has transcended a once-in-a-generational, multiregimen racing career to become a major stakeholder in the business of motorsport, was central in each of his new teammates' decision to join his team. There was the sense among his brood at a recent test session at Daytona International Speedway that the hard-edged three-time Sprint Cup champion -- in 2011 the first to win as a driver/owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 -- had put them in the right place at the right time.

"Danica came up to me and there's a hug and we just start B.S.-ing," Busch said of seeing Patrick at the test. "It's where the friendship was when I saw her at the banquet. And, with Harvick and I, we are so much further ahead because we had that relationship at RCR and Furniture Row last year. And, with Tony, seeing him in the hospital, seeing him in the house recovering, spending time with him at the track when he wasn't racing, I got to learn a whole different Tony versus the competitor Tony I had always gone up against. So, the timeline has worked out really well with the friendship side."

At some point in any season, teammates will find themselves in a room either glowering at each other or simply simmering.

Additionally, SHR has questions to answer after an unfulfilling 2013 season, and Stewart has already declared that the team should win "a lot of races" and that anything less than having him, Busch and Harvick in the Chase would be a disappointment.

The question is always how any group responds. That Stewart is highly respected, highly successful and high-strung -- although his outbursts in recent years mostly have been limited to throwing helmets at Matt Kenseth -- might actually mitigate friction or better channel it as a creative force.

Predictions of contentious debriefs and team meetings might amuse outsiders. Harvick said, well … they amuse the team, too.

"I think people who don't have opinions and don't want to voice their opinions are not constructive and don't help our race team go forward," Harvick said. "Four valuable opinions, obviously, can be taken from our competition guys, whether it's an engineer or crew chief, who can help point our ship in the right direction with that information.

"You look at [Hendrick Motorsports'] Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"You've got to be able to make four teams work to be able to compete with those guys, and those are four of the biggest names in the sport, so certainly we can figure out how to make our people work. We've all worked together before in some way, shape or form, so we just kind of laugh at all those opinions.

"We will have our own opinions, but they have to be taken -- and they will be taken. Everyone knows who they're dealing with and they know we will speak our minds, so they don't have to worry about not getting an answer."

Not here.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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