DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kurt Busch has Stewart-Haas Racing back in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
SHR headed to Daytona determined to leave the professional and personal struggles of three of its four-car driver lineup in the past.
Kevin Harvick reigns as NASCAR’s champ. But he was almost an afterthought at Speedweeks.
The focus was on Busch yet again once NASCAR suspended the driver indefinitely after a judge said the former champion almost surely choked and beat a former girlfriend last fall.
The 36-year-old Busch has denied the alleged assault.
Regan Smith will drive the No. 41 Chevrolet in Sunday’s Daytona 500 no matter the outcome of Busch’s expedited appeal.
There was hope that a Tony Stewart rebound from the worst year of his life — one that included a crash that killed a sprint car driver — could go a long way toward ending the ongoing soap opera at the Stewart-Haas Racing team.
Instead, it lingers into stock car’s version of the Super Bowl.
Stewart and Busch had grown tired of talking about the past. After a question last week about his crew chief ended a string of inquiries about his legal woes, Busch cracked: “Is that a racing question? Wow.”
Here is a racing question they might enjoy trying to answer: Can any driver unseat Harvick as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup champion?
Harvick’s first career championship helped steady the organization amid all the turmoil and salvaged a season that saw his three teammates combine for just one victory and nine top-five finishes.
Harvick had five wins, 14 tops fives and a whopping eight poles as he ended a 14-year pursuit of a championship.
“You get referred to as champ and that’s great and pretty cool,” Harvick said.
Pretty cool, indeed.
Here’s a look at what’s ahead for the most complex organization in NASCAR:
TONY STEWART: Stewart needs to hit the reset button about as much as any driver ever in the sport.
The three-time NASCAR champion’s performance was subpar even before the Aug. 9 accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt track race in upstate New York. Stewart spent three weeks in seclusion, and when he returned, broken and emotionally fragile, he didn’t race well. His 15-year streak of winning at least one NASCAR race came to an end.
Stewart feels better on his surgically repaired right leg following a sprint car crash that cost him 15 races in 2013. He’s no longer Subdued Smoke, he’s back to mixing his jovial and jerk-like sides depending on the day. He vented on Twitter about his frustration with Daytona 500 qualifying and then was all smiles in pictures posted on his account with female Disney characters.
“He’s running across the shop, no more scooters, no more limping,” Harvick said. “He’s gotten all his other situations situated and I think that hopefully he gets back on track because he’s happy and content with where he’s at in life.”
DANICA PATRICK: Not even Patrick could escape the hex that hit SHR when her Super Bowl commercial for sponsor GoDaddy was scrapped after animal rights activists howled in protest. She failed to add to her record 13 Super Bowl commercials months after failing to add to her number of NASCAR wins. She’s still stuck on zero.
Patrick did have three top-10 finishes but wound up 28th in the final standings, one spot worse than 2013.
Her contract is up at the end of this season and potential extension talks have not started. She had little interest in Daytona of discussing her future.
“It’s frigging February, buddy,” she said.
Patrick got off to a bumpy start after she crashed during Wednesday’s practice and was forced to drive her backup car.
Her second Daytona wreck of the week with Denny Hamlin put her in danger of missing the field. Her Stewart-Haas Racing team worked frantically Thursday night on rapid repairs and she restarted 18th with two laps to go. She was pushed all the way around the speedway by Busch to finish 10th and make the race.
“It shouldn’t go unsaid, Kurt was there for me,” Patrick said.
KURT BUSCH: Busch is not allowed to participate in any series activities until further notice given the “serious nature of the findings and conclusions” made by a Delaware judge involving the driver known as “The Outlaw.”
Busch becomes the first driver suspended by NASCAR for domestic violence.
The 36-year-old Busch has denied the alleged assault, which is the subject of a separate criminal investigation, but the judge said Driscoll’s version of the incident was more credible than Busch’s.
Busch’s off-track scandal masked the fact that his first season at SHR was a letdown. Now, there’s no idea when — or if — he’ll race again.
KEVIN HARVICK: Harvick was once known as Happy more as a joke because of his occasional outbursts. But Harvick is a family man and a driver at peace with a championship in hand. He won it all in his first season at SHR despite the chaos and middling finishes around him.
Harvick expects more big wins ahead in 2015 — starting with the Daytona 500. He could lead the way again, and maybe, with three of his teammate along for the ride in those final 10 Chase races.
“I know what it’s like to have won this race and the experience that comes with it and I would love to be a part of winning this race with this group of guys and the things that come with it,” Harvick said.
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