The Stewart-Haas Racing team placed a strip of black tape over The Outlaw signature above the driver’s door of Kurt Busch’s No. 41 Sprint Cup Chevrolet on Saturday morning.
Busch was across the street from Daytona International Speedway, unsuccessfully appealing the suspension NASCAR handed down after a Delaware court, in curious timing late Friday afternoon, revealed findings that implicated Busch in an ongoing domestic violence case.
Xfinity Series regular Regan Smith prepared to replace Busch in Sunday’s Daytona 500, just as he subbed for Stewart-Haas co-owner Tony Stewart last Aug. 10 at Watkins Glen, the day after Stewart struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. in a sprint-car race in upstate New York.
Nothing is ever dull around Stewart-Haas Racing. Not with a team that features Stewart, one of the most polarizing figures in the sport; drama queen Danica Patrick; and the two drivers who were added last year, the volatile Busch and temperamental Kevin Harvick.
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Considering all the turmoil that envelops the organization, it was amazing that Harvick pulled off the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, the second for Stewart-Haas in the last four years. Stewart won his third career title in 2011 in the team’s third year of operation.
The tragedy involving Stewart and the accusations against Busch — he has not been formally charged or found guilty of anything yet — have overshadowed Stewart-Haas’ triumphs on the track.
Stewart, who sat out three races in the aftermath of Ward’s death, eventually was exonerated of any criminal charges by a grand jury, but the emotional scars took their toll on him.
“It was hard to watch, because one of the biggest reasons I came to SHR was for Tony Stewart,” Harvick said, “and you’re out on the race track being successful, and this guy’s just going through everything that he has going on in his life.”
Busch’s status at Stewart-Haas will be in question indefinitely, especially now that Chevrolet also has severed ties with him, but the race team has not committed to a replacement beyond the Daytona 500.
Smith, 31, was the 2008 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year. But he lost his ride — ironically to Busch — at Furniture Row Racing late in the 2012 season. He found a home in the Xfinity Series, finishing third and second in the points standings for JR Motorsports the last two seasons.
Smith, an accomplished driver on restrictor-plate tracks, won the Xfinity race at Daytona last February and finished second in the July race. He also finished seventh in the Daytona 500 in 2011.
He’s also experienced in a substitute role. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed two races in 2012 because of a concussion, Smith drove the No. 88 Chevrolet in two races, including a seventh-place in the fall race at Kansas Speedway. He wasn’t as successful at Watkins Glen last year in Stewart’s car, crashing and finishing 37th.
“I don’t think anybody wants to be in the scenario where you have to sub under (any) circumstances, whatever they may be,” Smith said. “That said, if it happens, you want to make the most of that opportunity.
“A lot of people have had their hands on that race car, have worked hard on that race car and they deserve to still have the opportunity to go out and win that race, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Before Saturday’s practice, Smith had not spoken with Busch about the car Busch qualified 24th for the 500, but he hoped to after the appeal on Saturday.
“He is the leader of this team,” Smith said. “He is the driver of the No. 41 car. With that said, I would anticipate that he would want to definitely help out in any way that he can.
“It would be beneficial to me to talk to him and ask, ‘Hey, what can I expect out of the car if I get in the middle of three-wide or if I get stuck on the high side on this part of the race track?’ If that opportunity presents, then obviously we’ll discuss that stuff.”
Stewart, who missed the final 15 races of the 2013 season after suffering a broken right leg while driving in an August sprint-car race, is still looking for his first Daytona 500 win in his 18th try, though he has won 19 times in other races on the track, including the July Sprint Cup race four times.
Stewart, 43, failed to win a Cup race last year for the first time in his 16 seasons in the series. He has had four operations so far — the latest on Dec. 1 to replace a rod in the leg that was broken — and another is planned after this season.
“I’m not 100 percent legwise,” said Stewart, “but in the car I’m fine. I felt fine last year. Everybody wanted to blame it on the injury last year, and that didn’t have anything to do with it when it came time to drive the car. We are in better shape than we were last year.
“I’m coming off of a bad year and a half, so I’m definitely excited to get it all behind us and move forward.”
Meanwhile, Patrick, a rainmaker on the sponsorship side of the sport, has yet to deliver as a driver. Patrick, 32, continues to find herself in crashes on the track and her contract expires at the end of the season.
Stewart said he has seen progress in Patrick’s first two seasons. She had just three top-10 finishes — including a seventh in the spring race at Kansas Speedway — and though she completed 97 percent of the laps in her races, she led for just 15.
“She’s just got to build on what she did last year,” Stewart said. “She kept making gains last year. Didn’t show up at the end of the day, but during the course of the races she definitely gained momentum. She had better finishes, and there were a lot of races that she had better days going and didn’t get the results she was looking for.
“The hardest thing is getting her to focus on the positives that she had happen last year versus the negatives. She’s so competitive, she’s so driven that she looks at that end result at the end of the day and doesn’t always look at what the result was that got her there, but to me it’s taking the positives out of it and building on that, and if she can keep that in mind, then I think she’ll do well.”
Stewart-Haas made a crew chief change, moving Tony Gibson from Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet to Busch’s car 41 in exchange for Daniel Knost, who was in his first year atop a pit box last year with Busch.
“I’m new and he’s new,” Patrick said of Knost, “and it’s a new relationship with each other. I feel like it’s going to take a little bit of time, but I feel like the things that I learned last year and on the race track and with my team will hopefully send me in the right direction to making that go as fast as possible.”
Patrick doesn’t look at 2014 as a make-or-break season.
“I feel like every year is a pivotal year,” she said. “When I first got into IndyCar, I thought I really needed to do a good job so I could stick around, and I did enough to feel like, ‘Gosh, I feel like I made enough of a splash that it’s good for my sponsors, and I ran well, so it can happen in year one, year two, year three, year four.
“The most important thing for me is that my sponsor is happy and that GoDaddy is getting what they need from the relationship and … that my team feels my desire and knows how determined I am and sees improvement and wants me to be a part of their team.”
Patrick bristled when asked about the status of contract talks with Stewart-Haas.
“It’s frigging February, buddy,” she snapped.
Just another day with Stewart-Haas Racing.