Busch finds taste of familiarity in new SHR role
January 17, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
The foundation will soon be poured for an addition to the Stewart-Haas Racing complex, an expansion that will allow a growing team to further spread its wings. The extra 125,000 square feet will house research and development, a pit crew fitness and training center and a multipurpose area, adding needed floor space at a facility where, these days, you have to inhale to move between crash carts, and road-course cars have been temporality crated up in pods to move them out of the way.
There's an unquestionable sense of the new and different these days at SHR -- and in more than just architecture, given that over the offseason, the team added two new drivers, three new crew chiefs and expanded from a trio of full-time Sprint Cup Series programs to four. Yet amid these different surroundings, Kurt Busch walks into his new shop and feels something very familiar.
"It reminds me of the feeling that I had back when I was at Roush Racing, where there's three very strong cars in the same shop," said Busch, who joins team co-owner Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick in the SHR fold for 2014. "Tony said it -- he said, 'I'm going to be disappointed if myself, Harvick and Busch don’t make the Chase.' He wants all three of us. So that’s the goal."
Busch made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last season, carrying a single-car organization into the playoff for the first time, despite a winless season for the Furniture Row Racing outfit. This, though, is a totally different dynamic -- Busch is joining two proven race winners on a team that claimed the championship in 2011, lifting the bar of expectations considerably higher. At Furniture Row, making the Chase was a dream realized. At SHR, it's a mandate from the top.
Of course, that's what Busch has been working back toward since the former premier-series champion split with Team Penske following the 2011 campaign. The past two seasons have seen a gradual climb, first with sponsor-strapped Phoenix Racing, and then with a Furniture Row outfit that had never been much of a factor until Busch slipped into the seat. Now at SHR, one of NASCAR's elite drivers is once again with an elite team, and it’s not difficult to envision a return to the form that saw Busch win 24 races and a title during a decade split between Roush and Penske.
"We know that success needs to be obtained," Busch said. "(Crew chief) Daniel Knost said to me the other day, 'I don’t want to let you down.' I said, 'Don’t think of it that way. Think of it as, we know where we need to be by the cutoff for the Chase. We know where we are right now. Let’s just draw a nice, linear line on how we're going to get there. And we're going to have to be ready by the time the Chase starts.' So it's been nice, with our goals that we've set."
Twelve months ago with the No. 78 team, making the Chase was a goal in and of itself -- now it's the baseline. Busch's addition as SHR's fourth driver was sudden, with co-owner Gene Haas hatching the deal in late summer as Stewart was recovering from a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash that sidelined the three-time champ for the rest of the year. The move required a rapid expansion, beyond the additional garage space expected to be complete by mid-summer. There have been a lot of moving pieces at SHR over the past six months, but they don't change the fact that for the first time in three seasons, Busch enters the year with legitimate championship hopes.
The enthusiasm for that is evident. Busch was at the SHR facility the Monday after Champions Week, the first day he was contractually able. His shop crewmen are the same ones who last year supported Ryan Newman, and Knost moves up to crew chief after working as race engineer on the old No. 39 team. Upcoming tests are slated for Nashville and New Smyrna. Former crew chief Matt Borland has moved back to oversee the engineering staff, returning to the position he held prior to the organization's performance dip last season.
"What I've seen is, there's this internal drive right now that's difficult to explain," Busch said.
That certainly extends to the drivers -- four hard-nosed and sometimes hard-headed competitors who represent some of the more combustible personalities assembled under one roof. And yet, Busch and Harvick developed a working relationship last season due to the alliance between their former teams Furniture Row and Richard Childress Racing. He and Patrick struck up a friendship during Champions Week. He got to know Stewart better during the long weeks when the team co-owner was recovering from his broken leg.
"Seeing him a the hospital, seeing him at his house recovering, spending time with him at-track when he wasn't racing -- I got to learn a whole different Tony, versus the competitor Tony I had always raced against," Busch said. "So the timelines worked out really well."
There are a lot of people waiting to see how the four SHR drivers work together, but Busch isn't one of them. A decade ago, such a grouping might not have been possible -- but times change. "We can all be in this situation now with what we've all been through, as far as our age, and what we've all been through on the track and off the track," Busch said. "All of us are in a good spot in our careers to do this. That’s what I see. We couldn't have done this a few years back."
He believes the situation at SHR is similar to 2012, when he teamed with his younger brother Kyle on a Nationwide program, and many predicted the worst. "I got the same peppering of questions -- aw, it’s not going to work, it's two brothers, they'll be hanging each other by the end," Kurt said. "And we had a mediocre campaign, which would bring up even more of a brotherly issue of why we didn't have success together -- and there was nothing said. Nothing happened. It drew us together closer as brothers. So I've been in that type of thought process before."
It helps, Busch believes, that SHR is a haven for grease-under-the-fingernails types who thrive on unvarnished roots racing, something signified by Stewart's frequent extracurricular activities as well as well as the old-school photos of each driver wheeling go-karts -- or in Busch's case, a dwarf car -- back in the day. To Busch, the atmosphere is reminiscent of his time on the old Southwest tour, when it was all about the race track and nothing else.
"It's the fun part of racing, and working hard and living the life of that racer. Where sometimes you get caught up in the corporate world, or you’ve got to go do this meet-and-greet, this convention show -- that's not the fun stuff that comes with smelling cars, gas burning, tires are hot, you get to feel it, touch it, and be at track," he said.
"Tony's a racer, and that’s what you see on the shop floor with all the guys that are there. Everybody's a racer. Everybody's got a go-kart or a late model or a modified or something they have in their own personal garage that they're messing with outside of the hours they're at Stewart-Haas. That was the main thing for me. With the Penske thing, as corporate as it was, as business as it was, it just didn't feel like we were there having fun racing."
Time will tell how much fun the SHR drivers have this coming season, and how much of the team's burgeoning potential will ultimately be realized. There is no doubt, though, what Busch is capable of, even with a single-car team that's a notch below the best in the sport. There is no doubt what SHR is capable of when the vehicles are right and the drivers are comfortable. Combined? The outcome may indeed turn out to be combustible, just not in the manner everyone seems to think.
"I feel like I have so many weapons in my arsenal now," Busch said. "… Just having so many pieces of the puzzle already sitting there, it's going to be easier to put them in place."