Tony Stewart’s health anchors 5 key storylines for NASCAR’s offseason
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Carl Edwards are all involved in the stories to watch this offseason.
With Kevin Harvick’s championship coronation official, and testing for 2015 beginning this week, the focus turns from the season that just was to the season that will soon arrive. With that in mind, here are the most pertinent storylines to mull over in what is a very short offseason.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets a new chief
After a wildly successful final season with the departing Steve Letarte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is getting a new crew chief for 2015. Filling Letarte’s seat atop the pit box is Greg Ives, whose pedigree suggests he should be a more than adequate replacement.
A former engineer for Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team, Ives moved to the Xfinity Series (formerly Nationwide) last season working with JR Motorsports (co-owned by Earnhardt). All Ives did there was guide rookie Chase Elliott to three wins and the championship.
Though Ives and Earnhardt haven’t worked together as a crew chief and driver they know each other well and should quickly build chemistry. And it doesn’t hurt that Ives has a strong rapport with Chad Knaus, which ought to maintain the synergy between the 48 and 88 teams.
2. Legal troubles loom over Kurt Busch
Police are still investigating the allegations of whether Kurt Busch assaulted his ex-girlfriend Sept. 26 at Dover International Speedway. Busch is due in court Dec. 16 where a judge will rule if a restraining order should be issued against the former NASCAR champion.
As for the case itself, no timeframe has been given when the investigation will conclude. With the start of the 2015 season a couple of months away, it would seem likely Busch will know his fate before the Daytona 500 rolls around. And with NASCAR chairman Brian France stating no sanctions will be taken until police render a decision, Busch is very much in limbo career-wise.
If charged, Busch will in all likelihood be suspended. And depending how events turn out, he could ultimately lose his ride with Stewart-Haas Racing.
3. Tony Stewart’s health
All you had to do was see Tony Stewart gingerly limp around the garage to see that the three-time Cup champion was still not fully recovered from a broken leg resulting from an August 2013 sprint-car wreck. That was confirmed when Stewart underwent a fourth operation — deemed routine by SHR officials — just weeks after the season ended.
Whether it was due to his leg not being 100 percent or other contributing factors (a different handling car, a new chief or off-track distractions), the fact is Stewart produced the worst season of his career in 2014. Among the lowlights were him failing to win a race for the first time in 15 years and producing a career-low 20.0 average finish. This followed just a single victory the year before.
SHR says Stewart will be ready for the start of the season. However, at age 43 one has to wonder if he’ll be able to regain the high level of performance which marked Stewart’s career before breaking his leg.
4. The Danica experiment enters Year 3
After a largely disappointing rookie season, Danica Patrick was more competitive in her second full season in Sprint Cup. Three times she finished in the top-10, including a career-best sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and her average finishing position improved three spots.
Now entering her third season, Patrick will be expected to continue to show progress and improve upon 2014. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean winning, it involves finishing in the top-10 with some regularity and not crashing with the same frequency. Patrick will need to do all of that if she is to prove deserving of another contract, as hers expires at the end of the year.
5. Carl Edwards makes the move to Joe Gibbs Racing
Years ago, a driver switching teams wouldn’t be expected to contend for a championship, as the initial adjustment period often precluded the consistency needed. The implementation of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, however, has made it more feasible, as demonstrated by Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick all finishing second or better in the championship in their first season with new organizations.
That raises the standard of what to expect of Carl Edwards, who joins Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 years with Roush Fenway Racing. Can he replicate the success of Kenseth, who signed with JGR in 2013 following a long tenure at Roush? Maybe seven wins like Kenseth accomplished isn’t realistic, but Edwards grabbing multiple victories is realistic.