Team Preview: Stewart-Haas Racing

SHR

"There’s no reason to believe we can’t be front-runners," Busch said, "especially with the results Kevin’s posted the last two years." (Photo: Getty Images)

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For Stewart-Haas Racing, the rhythm and pace of an ordinary off-season was disrupted on the final weekend of January when co-owner Tony Stewart was injured while vacationing in California.

The three-time Sprint Cup champion suffered a serious back injury in an all-terrain-vehicle accident and will be sidelined indefinitely following surgery on Feb. 3. No replacement has yet been named and there is no timetable for "Smoke’s" return to competition.

Preparations continue for the three other teams in the stable and drivers Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick. For Harvick and his No. 4 team, the last two seasons have been about as good as it gets – with a championship in 2014 and a second-place finish to Kyle Busch last year.

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

SHR"Our team is intact and that keeps the communication at a high level," said Harvick, heading into another season paired with crew chief Rodney Childers. "All four crew chiefs at SHR are on the same page, getting along and communicating. That’s a big key in pushing forward, especially when you have a new rules package."

NASCAR’s low-downforce specifications will be introduced in the second race of the season, on the 1.5-mile oval at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was tested twice last year, at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway.

Harvick had top-10 finishes in both races, part of a rock-solid 2015 season that saw him fall one position short of a second straight championship in the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

With all the success Harvick has enjoyed since 2014, he’s still taking a level head into Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.

"You can’t let the highs be too high or the lows be too low," said Harvick, entering his third season at SHR. "In 2015, we did a good job of managing the expectations of a team returning off a championship season. We didn’t win as many races as we could have, but a lot of that was dictated by crazy circumstances."

Harvick did collect three wins – at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Dover. He also won a pole at Phoenix International Raceway and earned the No. 5 seed for the post-season Chase, taking his title bid all the way to the closing laps at Homestead before settling for second place behind Busch.

"For me right now, confidence is very high," Harvick said. "If we’re on our game, we’ll capitalize on that. If we’re off, we have a strong enough group to gather it up as quickly as possible and point it in the right direction."

From an organization-wide standpoint, Patrick – like Harvick – sees strength in the fact that communication is strong among the four SHR teams.

"That’s valuable on a four-car team," said Patrick, heading into her fourth full season in the Sprint Cup Series. "That’ll help us continue to climb the ladder and get better as the year goes on."

SHRPatrick finished 24th in the final standings last season, an improvement of four positions over 2014. She missed the post-season Chase by eight spots with just two top 10s in her 36 starts. For 2016, Patrick will be paired with Billy Scott, her third crew chief in as many years. He follows Tony Gibson and Daniel Knost to the top of the pit box for the No. 10 Chevrolet.

Kurt Busch qualified for last year’s Chase as the No. 7 seed and was eliminated from title contention following a seventh-place finish in the third round at Phoenix. The former Sprint Cup champion, who will once again be paired with crew chief Tony Gibson, says his No. 41 team is resilient and confident entering the new season.

"There’s no reason to believe we can’t be front-runners," Busch said, "especially with the results Kevin’s posted the last two years. Collaboration among our four cars is better than I’ve ever seen it."

And, like most other drivers, Busch is in favor of the new low-downforce rules ... going so far as to say that NASCAR hasn’t yet gone far enough.

"Right now, I would say take more downforce off come July 1," Busch opines. "We’re going to get softer tires on these cars and then it’ll start getting hot outside. We can’t be afraid to adjust on the fly, without messing up the overall product."

Busch embarks on his third season at SHR coming off a year in which he won two races, at Richmond International Raceway and Michigan International Speedway. He also claimed three poles which landed him a spot in Saturday night’s season-opening Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona.

Motor Racing Network – “The Voice of NASCAR” – will have live coverage of the 58th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 21, starting at 12 p.m. (ET) – with live streaming at MRN.com and on the MRN App.

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