DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Despite a potentially volatile mix of egos, Stewart-Haas Racing enters 2014 with an expanded lineup of prime-time talent, making it a preseason favorite to be NASCAR's most entertaining team to watch if not a favorite for the championship.
Co-owner and three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, 42, will try to bounce back from a broken leg that has sidelined him since early August and left him out of NASCAR's top 10 in points for only the second time in 15 seasons.
Already joined by the sport's pre-eminent female driver in Danica Patrick, SHR has added former Cup champion Kurt Busch, 35, and Kevin Harvick, 38, who is seeking the natural progression to a championship he never had the chance to experience despite 23 Cup wins for Richard Childress Racing.
"Our driver talent is crazy, our crew chief lineup is very strong, and with Matt Borland back behind the scenes in engineering, everybody at the shop is pumped up with what we have," said SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief for two of his three championship runs.
And it doesn't hurt that SHR has a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports to power their Chevrolets.
Stewart said each of the four drivers is an "alpha personality." Each is certainly a story of interest.
Harvick enjoyed the most success last season, winning four races, including the Daytona 500, and finishing third in points despite his lame-duck status at RCR. It was his finest season since his five-win rookie campaign, which came when he was called upon to replace the irreplaceable Dale Earnhardt Sr. a week after Earnhardt's death.
"Last year was an awkward situation to be in," Harvick said. "Everybody knew that everyone was going in different directions, but we had to keep the focus on racing. Luckily, we had a group of guys who just wanted to race and didn't get involved in the politics. We had a good year."
Not so much for Patrick, whose highlights came early in her Sprint Cup rookie season. She won the pole and finished eighth in the Daytona 500. It would be her only top-10 start and one of only five races in which she'd finish better than 20th. Her average finish was 26th.
Despite recent comments from Richard Petty that Patrick would not be a factor in Sprint Cup even if she were a male, Patrick believes she is making strides.
"I just feel I know the car much better than I did at this point last year," said the 31-year-old Patrick. "I've been to all the tracks now and just have a better idea, in general, how to go about race weekends. At the end of the day, I have the most to learn. It almost feels like another rookie season, having Kevin and Kurt and all the new people around the shop."
Busch, with 24 career wins and the 2004 Cup championship on his resume, was amazed when he stepped into Stewart's motor home during a practice session at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"It was like a command center, with radio feeds, laptop deeds, laptop setups," Busch said. "He was scanning Danica. He had [Ryan] Newman set up on his laptop and he was watching Mark Martin go around and listening in. I was amazed at how engaged he was in just a Friday practice session."
Having made 521 consecutive Sprint Cup starts, six months of virtual inactivity behind the wheel has Stewart itching to take the green flag at Sunday's Daytona 500.
"If anything, it's probably made me more hungry to get ready for this year," said Stewart, who required two surgeries, including having a rod inserted in his tibia, after his wreck at Southern Iowa Speedway. "I haven't had a pain-free day since Aug. 5, but I'm most comfortable when I'm sitting in the car. I don't know how we could be more prepared than we are now."