With a pair of high-profile additions in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, along with the continual recovery of Tony Stewart, there is no shortage of intrigue at Stewart-Haas Racing this offseason.
2013 in the Review
A switchover to the Generation 6 car combined with the expansion of a third full-time team for Danica Patrick put SHR in a hole the team wouldn't climb out of until late spring. The breakout began with a Stewart victory at Dover, who followed his triumph with five top-10s in the next eight races.
Stewart's season, however, came to an end abruptly Aug. 5 when he broke his leg in a sprint car accident. He missed the final 15 events of the year, and the three drivers who filled his seat (Max Papis, Austin Dillon and Mark Martin) did so with tepid results.
With Stewart sidelined and removed from title contention, the onus fell on Ryan Newman to carry the SHR banner. The veteran did so admirably. On the strength of his victory in the Brickyard 400, Newman qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and notched six finishes of 10th or better in the playoffs.
The success enjoyed by her teammates during the second half of the season did not manifest itself for Patrick. The rookie struggled mightily, and her sterling eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 was her only top-10 of the year.
Patrick repeatedly had difficulty in qualifying, with a dismal average starting position of 30.1 -- third worst among all drivers who competed in all 36 races. Most troublesome was her inability to improve as the season progressed and she gained experience, as Patrick had just one finish better than 20th in the final 18 races.
2013 Driver Lineup
Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet); Danica Patrick (No. 10 Go Daddy Chevrolet); Tony Stewart (No. 14 Mobile 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet); Kurt Busch (No. 41 Haas Automation)
Few if any teams have undergone the upheaval that SHR has experienced within the previous six months. In fact, it might be easier to list what hasn't changed than what has, including the departure of Newman, who was let go to make room for the addition of Harvick, and the out-of-nowhere signing of Busch.
Furthermore, SHR has also brought crew chiefs Chad Johnston and Rodney Childers on board, both of whom were previously with Michael Waltrip Racing. Johnston will lead the No. 14 team and replaces Steve Addington, who never quite meshed with Stewart. Childers, who is held in high regard in the garage, was brought over to pair with Harvick. As for Busch, he will work with first-year crew chief Daniel Knost, a former engineer for Newman.
Biggest Offseason Question
Questions abound at SHR, perhaps more so than any other organization.
First and foremost centers on the health of Stewart, who has been cleared to return but won't turn an actual lap until the day before the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona. Even then, he says his leg will only be only 65 percent healed, which casts doubt on what happens if he is collected in an accident during Speedweeks -- a definite possibility.
Then is there is question of how Patrick will perform in her second full season. Will she show moderate improvement and be a more consistent presence in the top-15, or will it be continued yo-yoing with far more downs than ups?
The most popular query when discussing SHR is whether four "alpha personalities" can coexist harmoniously without succumbing to infighting and dissension. This question was put to Stewart during last week's media tour and he was adamant in his response.
"The great thing is we have all had the advantage of understanding each other and help with some of the personalities like this," he said. "... We look at it as a great opportunity that this will be a huge positive -- a great match for four great personalities and four great drivers to work very hard together and they can understand and relate to each other."
More than likely though, due to kinship Stewart, Busch, Harvick and Patrick have for one another, any divisiveness among the four will be a nonissue. It is something to watch for, especially if the results aren't there from the onset.
However, there is another question that is most pressing; the one that will likely decide whether SHR can call the 2014 season a success: Is the organization better equipped to handle expansion than it was a year ago? Last season the addition of a third car set SHR well behind, and though its performance improved overall in the second half, there is no denying the organization never completely recovered.
Running four cars is a considerable undertaking, and when the issue of expansion was initially broached, both Stewart and competition director Greg Zipadelli were hesitant.
Despite the misgivings, SHR forged ahead and is in the process of expanding its facility to accommodate all four full-time teams and an influx of personnel.
Was the rush to expand a misstep that will again cripple SHR, or did the team learn from its mistakes? As of now, that's the great unknown.
Stewart, Harvick and Busch are three sublime wheelmen who, if given the proper tools, will win races and challenge for championships. And at a minimum, all three should be expected to qualify for the Chase -- a task made considerably easier considering the revised criteria and expanded field.
"I think we can win a lot of races," Stewart said last month during Daytona testing. "I think 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."
Anything less than the trio making the playoffs will and should be considered a failure. More so, it will cast doubt about the viability of the supposed four-car super team and SHR's prospects going forward.
The obvious outlier in all this is Patrick, who faces a far lesser standard on whether her season is a success than that of her teammates.
The most pertinent goal, and one she should exceed, is qualifying better. With Hendrick cars and motors underneath her, there is no excuse for her to have an average starting position in the 30s. Nor is it acceptable for Patrick to register just one top-10 finish.
"This year I think will be a big year for her," Stewart said. "... I think she knows more what to expect and it's more a matter of focusing on the things that she can be better at. I think all four of us have the potential to do better than all four of us did last year. But for sure I feel like we've got three cars that can win races and make the Chase right now."
Ultimately success will hinge on whether SHR is capable of getting its three Chase-caliber teams functioning at a high level sooner than later. A task made considerably easier with the wealth of talent now on hand that just needs to prove that it can work together.