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Motorsports notebook

From silly to crazy at Stewart-Haas

Addition of Busch could be combustible for team

Cars spin through Turn 1 in a multi-car wreck during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 auto race at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., Sunday, May 5, 2013. Tony Stewart (14), Jeff Burton (31), Brian Vickers (11), David Reutimann (83), Kevin Harvick (29), David Stremme (30) and Martin Truex Jr., all participate in the wreck. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Cars spin through Turn 1 in a multi-car wreck during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 auto race at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., Sunday, May 5, 2013. Tony Stewart (14), Jeff Burton (31), Brian Vickers (11), David Reutimann (83), Kevin Harvick (29), David Stremme (30) and Martin Truex Jr., all participate in the wreck. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

They call this stretch “Silly Season” in NASCAR. Well, wait until next year.

Next year, Sprint Cup fans will be treated to hot-headed powder kegs Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch working under the same roof, with arguably the sport’s most polarizing figure in Danica Patrick. “Silly” could be one way to describe how things could get at Stewart-Haas Racing. “Chaotic,” “crazy” and “theatrical” could be apt, as well.

Such highly-combustible situations aren’t unusual in sports. The 1970s saw the “Bronx Zoo” in New York. There’s also the melodrama that has been the New York Jets since Rex Ryan arrived in 2009. And even fans in this area shudder at the recollection of how quickly the Bobby Valentine experiment in 2012 unraveled into disaster.

The new roster at Stewart-Haas Racing could be approaching that caliber.

There’s no doubting the talent at SHR, but there’s just as little questioning the highly-charged personalities that will now be working together. Stewart is known for getting surly in interviews and sarcastic with the media. Harvick can get irritable and has had issues with his temper (landing him the ironic nickname “Happy”). And Busch is the granddaddy of them all, a former champion who lost his ride with an upper-tier team due to his emotional outbursts off the track.

There’s also the possibility that their egos will blend into a mix that embraces teamwork over disarray. That’s certainly what co-owner Gene Haas envisioned when he took it upon himself to land Busch and fully sponsor his car less than two months after Stewart opted against bringing back Ryan Newman to prevent taking on a fourth ride. Right away, Stewart-Haas has the firepower to compete with the best of the best in the Sprint Cup. Busch, Stewart and Harvick have four titles and 14 top-five finishes among them, stacking them up favorably with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports and Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing.

As is the case whenever a team tries to blend big names together, the potential for success is there. Stewart-Haas Racing could be a force the moment the green flag waves at Daytona next year. But it’s not hard to see a situation that tests the group. What if Busch and Harvick succeed but are forced to answer question after question about Patrick if her adjustment to Sprint Cup continues to lag? What if Stewart has to answer when Busch pops off at a reporter after a wreck? What if one makes a move to win a race on the other, as Earnhardt Jr. did to Gordon last year, resulting in a publicized argument over what’s right and wrong on the track?

And what if, in perhaps the most realistic scenario of all, a team that supported only two cars as recently as last year and struggled initially with three can’t support the weight of four? What if Busch, Harvick and Stewart are racing hard but stuck on the fringes of chase contention, causing an already cranky bunch to grow even crankier?

There’s high risk and high reward with this group. Stewart-Haas made moves to chase a title. Whether or not the mix works, the result is a team that will find it hard to stay out of the headlines.

What about Newman?

It would have been hard to hear the news that Busch was heading to Stewart-Haas and not immediately think back to a little more than a month beforehand. That’s when SHR announced it would be letting Ryan Newman go after he finishes his fifth season with the team, due to co-owner Stewart’s unwillingness to bring on a fourth car.

As it turns out, Haas’s decision to fully fund that fourth car set up Busch to come on board. But now the man on his way out remains a top free agent in waiting.

There will be suitors for Newman, a veteran driver with 17 wins and four Chase berths under his belt, and who is currently in position for a wild card spot to qualify for a fifth.

One of the choices would be a clean swap at Furniture Row Racing, with Newman taking the ride that Busch is leaving. Furniture Row is a one-car team, but one with perks not normally given to such small operations. The team there is capable and productive, as evidenced by its helping Busch to the brink of a Chase spot, and its alliance with Richard Childress Racing affords it some of the resources of a top-tier Sprint Cup team.

Newman could also draw the interest of the big team itself. Childress is losing his top driver in Harvick, and he could be sold on Newman, a proven commodity who’s been more productive than remaining drivers Jeff Burton and Paul Menard.

A roadblock, however, could be Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon, who’s second in the Nationwide Series standings and could be in line for a promotion to the team’s Sprint Cup lineup. That by itself wouldn’t derail Newman’s chances, but would put pressure on the driver to carry sponsorship to help the team turn out a fourth car, unless Childress wanted to dig deeper into his wallet.

Three up

Matt Kenseth – An all-but assured spot in the Chase was formally wrapped up after the driver held off Kasey Kahne in a thrilling finish in Bristol.

Joey Logano – Racing well when it matters most. Logano finished fifth at Bristol, putting him 10th in the standings and in solid position for a Chase berth.

Kasey Kahne – Finished second at Bristol and pushed Matt Kenseth to the max as they raced for the win. Furthermore, he didn’t wreck Kenseth when the chance was there, despite prior feuds with Joe Gibbs Racing. Good show of class from a very solid driver.

Three down

Brad Keselowski – The defending champion cancelled out the progress made over the last three weeks with a 30th-place showing last weekend. At 11th in the standings with no wins, he’s far from a Chase lock.

Kurt Busch – The day started well for Busch, as he spent 54 of the first 76 laps in the lead, but problems with his car and pit road penalties arose soon after. The result, an ugly 31st-place finish, bumped him back outside of the Chase.

Jimmie Johnson – Even the best have their off stretches. It’s been rough for Five-Time, with 40th- and 36th-place finishes in his last two races.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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