Kurt Busch: Stewart-Haas Racing will thrive in ’14 despite four disparate personalities

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As has been seen in many cases over NASCAR history, peaceful coexistence between fierce competitors is nothing short of an oxymoron – if not a total impossibility.

But as Stewart-Haas Racing prepares to kick off the 2014 Sprint Cup season, it has brought together a cast that is fueled by testosterone, machismo and bravado.

And those are the good points.

There’s no question that Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick are close friends, but even close friends have had their run-ins over the years.

Kurt Busch and Harvick and Stewart – especially Busch and Harvick – have also had enough on-track conflicts to last a lifetime. And yet now they’re teammates, expected to bury the hatchet and play nice together.

While some critics may question the viability, it is not unusual in the world of sports. Look back at the glory years of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders from 1976 through 1983, when they won three Super Bowls (1976, 1980 and 1983). Under the late Al Davis, the Raiders put together perhaps the greatest collection of characters, personalities, castoffs and quasi-misfits ever seen in pro sports.

If there ever was a group destined to fail, it was the Raiders. But somehow, Davis made it work. He found a way to turn downright enemies into, well, not exactly BFFs, but a group that realized the collective reward of the team far overshadowed any beefs or individual hatred of teammates — not to mention individual success.

That’s kind of the scenario that will likely play out in 2014 at Stewart-Haas Racing. While past dust-ups will never be forgotten, SHR has put together a veritable murderer’s row of talent that could be the biggest challenge to Jimmie Johnson winning a seventh Cup title, of Hendrick Motorsports remaining the most dominant team in the sport, and also give teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing downright fits.

Busch, in particular, is perhaps the biggest wildcard of all in the SHR lineup. But he’s more than ready to let bygones be bygones with Harvick and Stewart (and Danica Patrick, for that matter), and be part of a stronger collective group than individually.

Busch has already had experience of sorts in situations where critics doubted peaceful coexistence. When he raced part-time for younger brother and team owner Kyle in the Nationwide Series two years ago, speculation was that two brothers – especially alpha drivers like the Busch siblings – would make for the worst kind of teammates.

As it turned out, it was completely the opposite – and actually may have helped Kurt prepare for this season with SHR.

“It reminds me of when Kyle and I got together to run his car in the Nationwide Series,” Kurt Busch told MotorSportsTalk. “There was all the speculation that things were going to blow up and go haywire.

“We actually had a rough season that could have led to problems, but it only brought us closer together to work on the car, to understand what was wrong and why we weren’t as competitive as we needed to be. It was a great challenge to bring us together as brothers and I see that happening as four personalities come together (at SHR).

“This season has so much potential to bring everything that we want to ourselves individually and to a team together. That’s what’s going to make this year special.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.