Drivers looking to unseat Harvick at 57th Daytona 500

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, February 21, 2015

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart stormed through the Daytona garage, agitated that NASCAR had ordered him to park his car during a practice session for failing to weigh in before he hit the track.

He curtly dismissed reporters and stewed as he stood on the scale. All that was missing was a pre-fight staredown from one of NASCAR’s heavyweight champs.

Angry Smoke was certainly back, the first sign of the season that Stewart might be feeling more like his old, ornery self after two seasons where everything went wrong.

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Stewart’s professional and personal 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. Besides Stewart, Kurt Busch is entangled in his own legal issues stemming from a dispute with his ex-girlfriend. On the track — where all drivers would rather be judged — Danica Patrick has yet to prove herself as a bona fide threat heading into the final year of her contract.

Stewart and Busch have tired of talking about the past. After a question 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 the lone SHR bright spot in Kevin 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.”

KURT BUSCH: Earlier this week, a judge ordered Busch to stay away from former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, who accused him of beating her last year at the Dover track. During the proceedings, “The Outlaw” said his ex was a trained assassin. We learned he was naked and sobbing on the floor after the “spiritual experience” of watching Brad Pitt in “Seven Years in Tibet.” His tawdry offseason netted headlines splashed on TMZ.

His 2004 NASCAR championship is suddenly the least interesting tidbit in his bio.

Busch’s troubles aren’t over yet. He must also be evaluated for “mental health problems related to anger control and impulse control,” though Busch’s attorney plans to appeal.

Busch’s off-track scandal masked the fact that his first season at SHR was a bit of a dud. Yes, he won a race early to clinch a spot in the Chase, but he never came close to developing into a championship contender. He has Tony Gibson calling the shots after a late-season crew chief swap with Patrick’s team.

“Tony went through some tough spots. I’ve been through some tough spots,” Busch said. “It’s about persevering and pushing hard and believing in the people around you and having a good support system.”

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.

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.

SHR can’t wait for the fresh start.

“I feel like it’s the best place we’ve been in a long time,” said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at SHR. “Our shop is working way better. The communication and the helping is better.”