After a disappointing 2013 campaign that featured just two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories, his Stewart Haas Racing team underwent a chassis-off makeover during the offseason. They jettisoned driver Ryan Newman in favor of former Richard Childress Racing wheelman Kevin Harvick, and added a surprise fourth team for former Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch. Team owner Tony Stewart handed crew chief Steve Addington his walking papers at season’s end in favor of former Michael Waltrip Racing pit boss Chad Johnston, leaving three of his four teams with unproven driver/crew chief tandems for the new season.
With the Daytona 500 just six weeks away, construction continues at the SHR complex in an effort to accommodate that expanded 2014 lineup. That kind of upheaval can negatively impact an organization scrambling to complete a four-team lineup of cars, and it remains to be seen whether Stewart Haas will hit the ground running at Daytona.
Clearly, they will have the parts and pieces necessary to win. Stewart Haas Racing’s technological partnership with Hendrick Motorsports is the strongest and most productive in NASCAR, earning championships in seven of the last eight seasons.
With major sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Budweiser, GoDaddy.com, Haas Automation, Outback Steakhouse, Jimmy John’s, Aspen Dental and State Water Heaters, Stewart Haas also has the financial backing necessary to win, and win often.
There are, however, a few critical questions to be answered.
As a driver, Stewart faces the most important test of his career. The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has recovered admirably from the grotesque leg injury that ended his 2013 campaign in early August, and appeared to be walking freely and without significant pain in a handful of pre-holiday appearances. While he will not take part in this week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series test at Daytona International Speedway, he is expected back in the Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet in time for Speedweeks 2014. A career-first win in the season opening Daytona 500 would announce his competitive comeback in no uncertain terms, and Stewart will be highly motivated to do exactly that.
Stewart’s most significant challenges, however, may come as a team owner. With the addition of Harvick and Busch, SHR’s lineup now features three drivers accustomed to winning races and contending for championships.
All three have enjoyed lead-driver status throughout their careers. All three have a reputation for periodic volatility, and all three have proven adept at pointing out the shortcomings – either real or imagined – of their respective teams, sometimes at high volume.
Some railbirds question whether Stewart, Harvick, Busch and Danica Patrick can co-exist peacefully in an environment where there is – at least initially – no clear-cut lead driver. Stewart must find a way to capitalize on the competitive nature of his teammates, while simultaneously ensuring that no one feels like a proverbial third (or fourth) wheel.
It won’t be easy, but it can be done.