For Busch, no real choice but to move on
August 27, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Related: Move brings Busch full circle | SHR's passionate team | Busch's move official
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- In theory, it sounds like a heartwarming idea -- stay with the smaller team you’ve helped to reach new heights, and build it into an organization capable of unseating the sport’s traditional powers. Kurt Busch’s run with Furniture Row Racing has been the kind of underdog story everyone loves, the tale of a program that might be at a disadvantage in terms of manpower and money, but has made up for it through chemistry and grit.
It’s understandable, then, why some might have thought he should stay. The reality is that it was never a choice to begin with.
That much became clear Tuesday, when Busch walked onto a stage at Stewart-Haas Racing wearing a golf shirt emblazoned with the insignia of the team which will employ him beginning next year. After tumbling down the career ladder following his nasty split with Penske Racing following the 2011 campaign, the 2004 champion of the Sprint Cup Series has worked his way back up. Next season SHR promises to feature a trio of serious title contenders in Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Busch, all of them outfitted with engines and chassis obtained from Hendrick Motorsports.
That’s a powerhouse if there ever was one, and we haven’t even mentioned Danica Patrick. SHR offered a championship pedigree, a team stocked with proven race-winners, and a direct pipeline to the best organization in NASCAR. Furniture Row offered promise. When we’re talking about a driver of Busch’s caliber, that’s simply no contest, regardless of what emotions might come into play.
No question, Busch certainly has a fondness for the guys at Furniture Row, just as he developed a fondness for the crewmen at Phoenix Racing the year before that. Those are the people who helped Busch reclaim his career, whose equipment allowed him to remind everyone just how spectacular he can be behind the wheel, whose programs made Tuesday possible. Busch has embraced his experience with the Denver-based No. 78 team, visiting Broncos training camp, throwing out the first pitch at a Rockies game, spearheading the organization’s first push for a bid to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But it would have been unrealistic to expect him to stay there long-term. That’s not a knock on Busch or Furniture Row, just as him leaving Phoenix Racing late last season wasn’t a knock on the No. 51 team. It’s the way of the sports world. Sure, the notion of him staying to help build something in Colorado is a charming one. It’s also fantastical. Competitors at the highest level want to win, and they want to be in an environment most conducive to winning, which is why they almost always make a jump like the one Busch is making to SHR in 2014.
Because it’s stratified much like auto racing, college sports offers an apt parallel. Brian Kelly builds a contending football program at Cincinnati, but leaves for Notre Dame. His successor, Butch Jones, keeps it going and moves on to Tennessee. Dave Doeren earns a Bowl Championship Series berth with Northern Illinois, and parlays that into a job at North Carolina State. Andy Enfield is the darling of the NCAA basketball tournament with Florida Gulf Coast, and then the head coach at Southern California. Brad Stevens seems set at Butler until the phone rings, and it’s the Boston Celtics on the other end.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they go. They have to. Sports careers are relatively short, and windows of opportunity relatively narrow. Opportunities must be seized upon, because there are no guarantees they will present themselves again. Besides, building from the ground up with one of the little guys is a hard, a romanticized concept that obscures just how large the gap can be between the establishment and everyone else. Cincinnati football has improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade, but it’s still not Notre Dame. Furniture Row Racing has made great strides in just two years, but it’s still not Stewart-Haas.
That much was evident again this past Saturday night, when a bad wheel hub knocked Busch out of a race at Bristol Motor Speedway that he was leading when things began to go awry. Just as a slow pit stop kept him from a chance at winning the Sprint All-Star Race when he had the best car in the event. Just as a dead battery knocked him out of the contention the next week in the Coca-Cola 600, which he was also leading when it all went wrong. If Busch fails to make the Chase, it won’t be because the driver isn’t good enough, or because the cars aren’t fast enough. It will because Furniture Row is showing obvious growing pains trying to get to the next level, and in turn emphasizing just how difficult that leap is to make.
Now, that shouldn’t detract from the progress the No. 78 bunch has made, which is substantial. But this is also a program that started up its own pit crew only this season -- prior to that, it used one obtained from Stewart-Haas. No question, big teams certainly aren’t immune from the dropped lug nuts or mechanical failures that can cost a driver a race. But what we’ve seen from Furniture Row this season gives the impression of a driver who can carry a program only so far. The rest has to catch up on its own, and there are no guarantees that would happen by next season should Busch have elected to stay.
Tuesday, it was clear that the moves which brought Busch to SHR were in motion well before this past Saturday night. Although Busch signed only Monday, getting there had been a month in the making. When it came to the final decision, he credited the opportunities before him rather than the shortcomings behind.
“Nothing that happened Saturday was the straw that broke the camel's back,” he said. “We're not going to look at one circumstance and say it affected a future plan to where you have a long‑term commitment and such an exciting opportunity that you can team up and drive cars with Tony Stewart, with Kevin Harvick. The 78 car is as good as anybody. The part that failed on Saturday night is something that you might see more in quality control if you are burning up four sets of hubs each week. Four times four would be 16. That's what we're going to have here next year. It's something that slipped through the cracks. You have those part failures. Right now, since we haven't built any cushion to have those pitfalls and still make the Chase, that's why it makes it so significant.”
Which is exactly the point -- at Furniture Row, his margin for error is smaller. Small mistakes, like a pit stop that’s a hair too long at Charlotte, loom much larger in scope. “We have to be perfect the next two weeks to make the Chase,” Busch said, while many of the teams around his simply just need to be solid. Such is the case for a team breathing such rarified air for the first time.
Of course, then you have a four-time champion in Jeff Gordon who needs to make a last stand this weekend at Atlanta, and a reigning champion in Brad Keselowski who at the moment is on the outside looking in. This isn’t easy for anyone. The difference is, we know those Hendrick and Penske programs will have next year. They’ve been there before, and will be there again. We don’t know that about Furniture Row, which won a race with Regan Smith in 2011, and then regressed. This is a better team now, no question. But in terms of contending for Chase berths, is this a one-year window that will close once Busch departs?
Those are the kind of unknowns that shouldn’t exist at SHR, where the expectations will be not to make the Chase, but to win it. Busch said he hopes he leaves the No. 78 team better than he found it, that they’ll be able to go to a track like Phoenix next season and look over setup notes they know worked the year before. Busch has likely raised standards at Furniture Row just by being there, given the expectations that race winners and champions carry with them. The team should be better for the experience, regardless of who is behind the wheel in 2014.
But Busch’s greatest gift to Furniture Row Racing will be on display over the next 12 weeks, as he tries to crash the Chase with a single-car team based in the Mountain Time Zone. Because once Busch embarks for the proven commodity of Stewart-Haas Racing, no one knows when -- or even if -- the No. 78 team will be back in this position again.
“We still have the present that's right in front of us,” Busch said. “The next two weeks are the post important weeks of the 78 car's career. If we find ourselves racing somebody heads up going into Richmond, that's what I want to be there for, to deliver them into the Chase, and at the same time it's the goal achieved of being in that position. … There's no sense in giving up, then. We'll keep plugging away and pushing. Time is now with the 78 car.”