Stewart says no schism with co-owner Haas
September 03, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- Tony Stewart’s right leg may be fractured, but the relationship between the two owners of Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t.
That was the message from the three-time champion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, who is out for the remainder of this season with two broken bones in his right leg suffered in a sprint car crash Aug. 5. Stewart met the media Tuesday in his first public appearance since the accident, and said there’s no rupture between him and Gene Haas over his co-owner’s move to bring in Kurt Busch as the driver of a fourth car beginning next season.
“Gene had made the decision that he wanted to make a change. We’re partners in this, and Gene wanted to make a change, and I’ve got to go with that,” Stewart said. “His choice to add Kurt to the organization, I really and truly was 100 percent behind it. I was just concerned about the time frame. The rest of it, everybody’s perception that we’re fighting and arguing -- there was never one argument between us. I just expressed my concern about the timing of it, and it was no more elevated than the conversation (we’re) having right here.”
During the race weekend at New Hampshire in mid-July, Stewart formally introduced Kevin Harvick as the driver of a third car at SHR for 2014. As part of that announcement, Stewart said Ryan Newman would not be returning because the organization was unable to accommodate a fourth car. Two weeks later at a dinner in Indianapolis, Haas spoke with Busch and learned the current driver for Furniture Row Racing did not have a deal in place for next season.
A week later, Stewart suffered compound fractures of his right tibia and fibula in a sprint car crash at Oskaloosa, Iowa. While Stewart was in the early stages of recovering from an injury that would require two surgeries, Haas moved forward with the effort to bring in Busch. By the time Stewart was in a position to voice an objection over the logistical hurdles involved in such a rapid expansion project, his partner had already extended an offer to the team’s newest addition.
In the media conference a week ago to introduce Busch, Haas conceded that Stewart “was a little upset” over the move, particularly since it would require the hiring of more personnel and lead to crowded quarters in the existing SHR shop until an addition is completed sometime next summer.
“It wasn’t as dramatic as he made it sound,” Stewart said. “When Gene came to me about the fourth team, he told me on a Monday, and then on a Thursday I was told they already had a contract ready. It definitely moved a lot faster in that time frame, and there were a lot of meetings in those three days. The biggest thing was having Greg Zipadelli sit there and say, ‘We can do this, and we can get it done in that time frame.’ And that was my concern. It wasn’t that I was against what Gene had in mind.”
Zipadelli is SHR’s competition director, and a confidant of Stewart going back to his days as the driver’s crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, where the pair won two championships together. Stewart said Zipadelli’s belief that that the new team could be integrated properly before next season -- creating a four-car organization also featuring Stewart, Harvick and Danica Patrick -- was the deciding factor in his mind.
“Gene was so excited about doing this and about having his hand involved in it, and that’s great,” Stewart said. “For me as his partner, I love seeing him this engaged, and I’m really proud of him for being as active in this process as he was. I was just worried about the time frame, and that’s what he hired me for. My job is to protect this company and look out for it and make sure what we do, we do with the right timing. And Greg was the big factor in that we could do it in the right time frame and not hurt the effort that we’ve got with Ryan trying to make the Chase and running for a championship this year.”
Newman is in contention for a Wild Card berth to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and the 12 drivers who qualify for the playoff will be decided Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Although some have alleged that Newman was deceived in this process, Stewart was adamant that a three-car organization for 2014 was indeed the plan when said in New Hampshire that Newman would not be returning for next year.
“When we had the press conference, where we were at is what we said, and that was 100 percent on the mark,” Stewart said. Adding Busch “literally came up while (Busch and Haas) were at Brickyard in Indy and were at a Chevy dinner. The conversation of doing a fourth team for next year, that’s when it started. You know, Gene’s not used to having partners. Gene’s a self-made success story in the CNC industry, and he’s pretty much been a one-man show doing it. This is the first time he’s really had a partner. Going through that process, he just didn’t think about talking to me about it until it got further along.”
When Haas eventually did broach the subject with Stewart, it came at “really the first opportunity he had,” the driver said. Stewart added he had no issues with the addition of Busch, whom he called “a huge asset” to the race team.
“He’s a guy that you know can go to every race track, and has the capability of going out and being fast, and can possibility win the race every week, at every discipline,” Stewart said of Busch. “… I knew that Gene wanted this to be a four-car team eventually. I had no dream that he had it in mind for 2014 until three Mondays ago.”
The team now known as SHR was founded by Haas as Haas CNC Racing in 2002, fielding a vehicle for Jack Sprague for three races. The organization eventually expanded to two cars, but it was only marginally competitive until Stewart was lured in with half ownership prior to the 2009 campaign. Two years later the team won its first Sprint Cup title with Stewart, who technically became the first driver/owner champion since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
But although Stewart’s name comes first in the team label, the street which the shop sits on remains Haas Way. And as the events of the past week have shown, Haas and his personal fortune clearly still control the organization’s purse strings. Asked if he would have been able to block Haas’ proposed expansion plan had he been in a position to, Stewart isn’t certain.
“He’s definitely the guy who writes the checks,” Stewart said, “and if he decides he wants to do something, I’m pretty sure with the fact that he holds the checkbook that he gets kind the final say of it. But I think he values our opinions now, and understands why I was asking questions and why I was cautious about the time frame. I think he respects that a lot more since last week.”
The past week seems to have been a learning process for Haas, who lives much of the year in California.
“I think he really understands this a lot more, and that there’s a lot more involved with it,” Stewart said. It’s also shown a different side of Stewart, who has essentially run SHR for the past five years, sealing the deal with sponsors and making the final calls on drivers and personnel. He may be a rambunctious racer at heart, but behind a desk he’s a cautious executive well aware of the risks involved in any decision.
“The part that scared me when Gene and I spoke about all this is that for a split second was, I was actually the adult in the conversation,” Stewart said. “That probably scared me more than anything through the process, that I was the one who used common sense and said, ‘Wait, let’s take a step back and think about this.’ Normally I’m the guy who’s throwing the dart at the board and saying, ‘If it hits yes, I’m full throttle and I’m out the door.’
“But I think that’s something that gained my respect with Gene a little bit. He’s wanting to spend a lot of money on this project, and it would be very easy for me to say heck yes, and give me the blank checks and let me go run with it. For five years we’ve run this like a business, and that’s what he hired me for. He hired me to go out and win races, but also to help this business along.”