How Should SHR Adjust If Tony Stewart Doesn't Recover Before 2014 Daytona 500?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2013

WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 09:  Detail view of a get well sticker for Tony Stewart seen on the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 9, 2013 in Watkins Glen, New York.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Jerry Markland/Getty Images

By all accounts, Tony Stewart is healing and recovering nicely from the injuries he sustained in an early-August sprint car wreck.

It's taken several surgeries and massive amounts of physical rehabilitation, as well as progressing from a wheelchair to motorized scooter to cane, but Stewart is on-track to eventually make a full recovery from the worst accident he's ever had in his entire racing career, regardless of the series.

"Smoke" looked great in photos taken during last week's Champion's Week in Las Vegas. Heck, he even looked somewhat dapper with the cane in his hand.

But I can't help wonder about something.

While there's still more than two months remaining before the 2014 season-opening Daytona 500 rolls around—meaning there's still plenty of time for Stewart to continue and hopefully complete his full rehab program—what happens if he finds he's physically not ready to compete in the Great American Race?

In other words, what if Stewart's injuries are not completely healed? What if NASCAR doctors—or his own doctors—don't give him medical clearance to drive?

Perhaps most importantly of all, what will Stewart-Haas Racing do without its leader at the start of the new season?

Sure, if he doesn't drive, he'll likely be atop the pit box, but it won't be the same as having him behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet.

Let's face it, SHR's season was all but lost when Stewart went down with the injuries he suffered at the dirt track in Iowa.

To his credit, Ryan Newman did a great job trying to keep the SHR name alive as the organization's lone representative in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, even knowing his tenure with SHR would be up at season's end.

But Newman has now moved on to Richard Childress Racing for 2014.

And while SHR has expanded from a three- to four-car operation in 2014, how does it adjust and go forward without Stewart, if need be?

For what it's worth (and it probably doesn't mean much), Danica Patrick now has seniority at SHR over newcomers Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, veteran drivers who will prove to be great assets to the organization.

Patrick is in no position to be the leader at SHR, at least on the race track, if Stewart's return is delayed.

But will Harvick and Busch, who have been long-time rivals, be able to put aside past differences and work together for the betterment of SHR, particularly early in the season and especially if Stewart isn't ready to go come Daytona?

To me, the key in all this is Harvick. He has a lot to prove in his first season post-RCR. He wants another Daytona 500 win and what better way to earn it than in his first race with SHR.

Plus, Harvick has long been one of Stewart's closest friends for years. Even though they've been competitors up to now, they think alike, race alike and have similar philosophies.

If anyone can pick up the SHR leadership baton from Tony and run with it, Harvick can. There is little doubt in my mind that Harvick is more than ready to step into the role of leading SHR until Stewart comes back 100 percent.

But let's not undersell Busch, either. He has the one thing Stewart has (three, in fact) and what Harvick (and Patrick) doesn't have: a Sprint Cup Championship, being the first driver to capture a Chase title back in 2004.

Granted, SHR will be much stronger once Stewart returns behind the wheel. But if he's still not ready come Feb. 23 when the green flag drops for the 56th running of the Daytona 500, SHR will still be in good hands and feet.

If there ever was a time to win for SHR's Gipper, the 2014 season opener would be the place and time.

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