Move to Stewart-Haas brings Busch full circle
August 27, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- When Kurt Busch was thinking about car numbers for his debut season with Stewart-Haas Racing, his girlfriend’s eight-year-old son Houston suggested an unusual one: 360. Why?
“Because you’ve come full circle,” he said.
Leave it to a grade-schooler to drill right down to the essence of Tuesday, when the 2004 champion of NASCAR’s premier series returned to a premier organization after nearly two years in a professional wilderness. Beginning next season Busch will drive an SHR entry backed by Haas Automation, the company founded by Gene Haas -- who put the deal in motion before even team co-owner Tony Stewart knew about it, and made it all happen in less than a month.
Busch joins what Haas called a “super team” for next season, one that will also feature drivers Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick. Although Stewart is out for the remainder of this season with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car accident, SHR is confident he will be back for 2014.
And then he’ll be joined by Busch, who won a title with Roush Fenway and was a perennial championship contender with Penske Racing before splitting from the latter organization in a spectacular fall from grace. After nearly a full season with mostly-unsponsored Phoenix Racing, and after carrying single-car Furniture Row Racing to the brink of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Busch now joins an outfit that won a title in 2011 and will feature 93 premier-series victories among its three top drivers.
Full circle, indeed.
“The opportunity is about people,” said Busch, who will finish this season with a Furniture Row organization and is currently 12th in points. “That’s what makes this so important, that I’ve neglected in the past. Understanding the people and knowing that makes the difference in whether you’re going to Victory Lane or not.”
The deal came together in a stunningly short period of time. Haas spoke with Busch at a Chevrolet dinner at Indianapolis in late July, and was surprised to learn that the driver was working on a one-year deal at Furniture Row. SHR had shown some interest in Busch the previous year before outgoing driver Ryan Newman inked a one-year extension, but couldn’t put a deal together. That didn’t dull Haas’ interest in Busch, whose intensity and attitude he was a fan of, and whom he called “kind of a favorite of mine.”
One week later, Stewart broke two bones in his right leg in a sprint car race in Iowa, an injury which required two rounds of surgery to repair. Unable to communicate with his partner, Haas moved forward with the Busch deal on his own. When Stewart finally did find out, he urged Haas to wait.
Too late. The offer to Busch had already been extended. “If he takes it,” Haas told Stewart, “I’m not going to back down.” As a result, Stewart-Haas is expanding its shop to accommodate a fourth car -- an undertaking which will require the construction of a new building next to its existing facility, which officials say can be completed by June of next year.
“I didn’t have the chance to talk to Tony about it all, since he really wasn’t really talking to anybody. So I pretty much did this on my own,” Haas said.
“Probably overstepped my authority a tick there. I’m not use to having too many authorities to work with, I’m pretty much on my own. I didn’t realize that Tony might be a little bit upset about it. And he was a little upset. At first he said, ‘Wow, we can’t really do this. This is going to be too much of a load on the team. We’re not prepared for it. We don’t have the space.’ He’s actually an astute businessman, he thought more about all these little things. ‘Where are we going to get the people? Where are the buildings going to come from? Where’s the money going to come from?’ I didn’t think about any of that. … I just thought, this would be kind of neat to have.”
Stewart, still in recovery from his injury, was unable to attend Tuesday’s announcement at the SHR facility. Team competition director Greg Zipadelli said the three-time NASCAR champion wasn’t against the idea of adding a fourth team, but was hesitant about the whether the organization could accommodate it for 2014.
“Tony was very much in favor of the fourth team,” Zipadelli said. “What Tony was against was us trying to get it done for next year. Just so you don't read anything more into it. I had a couple weeks to process it. … Tony was in the hospital. Tony didn't know the discussions that were going on. When we all met and talked about it and assured him we would do our best to make sure things didn't slip through the cracks, it took him a couple days to process it. I was like, Are you kidding me? But it's an opportunity of a lifetime for a race team to have a caliber of a driver like this. I know he's very excited about it now. But it's a little overwhelming when you're first hit with it.”
Even so, it’s clear that this was all engineered by Haas, who founded the organization as Haas-CNC Racing in 2002, seven years before Stewart was added as a co-owner and helped it rise to prominence. The same opportunity wasn’t extended to Newman, Haas said, because he wanted a driver of his own choosing to represent a car with his company’s name on the hood. He added that Stewart was leery at first, but eventually came around.
“He has a lot of power. I have to admit, you know, I have some power, too,” Haas said of Stewart. “I think in a sense it's a check‑and‑balance system where the two powers balance each other out. I have a lot of respect for Tony. He's a great driver, past champion. Tony has a lot of respect for me. … Putting a super team together with four top drivers, what we have, I mean, that's kind of like your Dream Team. I think initially, since it wasn't Tony's idea, he was taken aback a little bit by it. But I think he saw it wasn't a bad idea. In retrospect it looks like it's going to be a great idea. If we don't win any races next year, hey, I'm going to look like an idiot. I take gambles, I made a decision, and I think I'm going to be proven right. I think we're going to win a lot more races than anybody ever thought possible.”
That potential certainly seems to exist, given the job Busch has done elevating the competitive level of Furniture Row Racing. Beginning next season, Busch will be with a premier organization for the first time since his divorce with Penske, which forced the driver to take a step back and reevaluate both himself and his career in the process. Busch has not won a Sprint Cup event since his last victory with Penske, at Dover in October of 2011 -- two months before it all fell apart.
“It's easy as a 25‑year‑old to say you know everything, that you can do everything by yourself. That's what I thought that I could do when I moved from Roush Racing to Penske back in 2006, to bring Roger his first championship. I thought I could wear all the weight on my back. That was not the case. That's when you learn it's about the people, team communication, how it filters through all the channels. The Penske thing, the image, all of that, it wasn't your own identity, you were trying to be something else,” Busch said.
Racing with teams like Phoenix and Furniture Row “allowed me to stay focused on the car, to stay genuine, and to still allow myself to grow and develop into what I really am, and that is a true hard‑nosed racer that gives it their all,” Busch added. “You’ve got to let the rough edges drag sometimes. When you have a guy like Gene Haas that wants to make you part of a four‑car, super‑power team calling, you have the ability to be yourself, to work with guys that have those same edgy attitudes as yourself, that's the journey I've been on over the last 18 months.”
That edgy attitude has sometimes been Busch’s downfall. But he’s clearly found a comfort level at Furniture Row, where owner and sponsor are essentially the same entity. He will work under a similar arrangement at Stewart-Haas, where Haas’ company will be on the hood of his vehicle. His new car owner clearly likes what he sees, rough edges and all.
“I know Kurt's résumé as well as anybody,” Haas said. “I kind of like his attitude. He's passionate about what he does. He likes to win. He's not afraid to get in people's faces. I think that kind of reflects my company a little bit. I think there's a good match there. He's a passionate person, and it takes a lot of passion to win these races.”
And given the equipment he’ll have underneath him at SHR -- which gets engines and chassis from powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports -- he should certainly have the chance to win more often. Busch’s car for 2014 doesn’t yet have a number, or a crew chief. But it has a rejuvenated driver, who received the call from SHR the Monday after a race, while he was gluing together pieces of a souvenir bowl he had bought on a trip to South America during an off week. He didn’t recognize the number, so he thought he’d better take the call.
On the other end was an invitation to come full circle.
“It's a real story every driver talks about when they get a call from an owner. That's the most exciting phone call you could ever receive,” Busch said. “There's a thousand guys they could have called, and I'm glad they called me.”