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.”

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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