KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — To hear Gene Haas tell it, the idea to hire Kurt Busch for a fourth team at Stewart-Haas Racing took flight after a chance meeting at the Chevrolet dinner during the Brickyard 400 week at Indianapolis.
True, Haas had talked to Busch over lunch a year earlier, when Ryan Newman’s status with the team was still up in the air. But after Haas learned at the Chevy dinner in late July that Busch’s contract with his current team, Furniture Row Racing, was up at the end of the 2013 season, he decided to act — and act quickly.
Not only did Haas push hard to add Busch to the Stewart-Haas roster — necessitating the creation of a fourth team with all the attendant complexities — he opted to bankroll Busch’s car through sponsorship from Haas Automation, the company he founded.
“I’m in this business to win races,” Haas said Tuesday during the announcement of Busch’s hiring at the Stewart-Haas Racing shop. “I’ve talked to Kurt Busch over the years, and he’s been kind of a favorite of mine. I’ve seen his on-track performance, and I thought this was a great opportunity to pair him up with Haas Automation and for him to be the driver of my choice.
“It was an opportunity that I felt was just too great to pass up. I bent a few rules and pushed and had some conversations with Kurt, and everything started to line up, and we just needed to figure out how we were going to do this.”
For Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, the ride with Stewart-Haas marks a return to an elite team commensurate with his talent behind the wheel.
“The excitement is at an all-time high,” said Busch, who will join owner/driver Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and fellow new arrival Kevin Harvick for the 2014 season. “To be in this position, it’s amazing to have Gene Haas call you up and say, ‘Hey, let’s go do this. Let’s go try to win some races together.’
“To have the opportunity to have Stewart-Haas as the emblem on the door that I walk through each day and go to work and work on building faster race cars with all the team engineers and top mechanics, but also to work alongside Tony Stewart as a co-owner, as a driver — he sees things from the driver’s seat that I’ve been trying to explain for years to team personnel and to owners — that’s what makes his position so valuable.”
Busch will finish out the season with Furniture Row, where he’s contending for a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. With two races left before the Chase field is set at Richmond, Busch is 12th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, six points behind 10th-place Joey Logano.
“We still have the present that’s right in front of us,” Busch said. “The next two weeks are the most important weeks of the 78 (Furniture Row) 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.”
Busch’s deal with SHR firmly establishes him as NASCAR’s comeback kid. The eight-year-old son of Busch’s girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, suggested that Busch drive car No. 360 “because you’ve come full circle.”
In a sense, Busch’s one-year stint with Phoenix Racing in 2012 was prophetic, because, like the mythological bird, he has risen from the ashes, recovering from self-inflicted wounds to his own career that cost him a high-profile ride at Penske Racing.
What was even more striking about Tuesday’s press conference, however, was the emergence of Haas as a public face and as a major player in an organization where he previously had appeared content to let Stewart take the lead.
If Newman’s tenure at SHR is ending this year because of a sponsorship deficit, Haas made it clear that the creation of a new team for Busch was happening at his instigation — and with his money. After the Chevy dinner, Haas asked SHR general manager Joe Custer to approach Busch.
A week later, Stewart broke his leg in a Sprint Car accident in Iowa, one that would require two surgeries and sideline him for the rest of the 2013 season.
“I didn’t have really a chance to talk to Tony about it at all since he wasn’t really talking to anybody,” Haas said. “So I kind of did this on my own, probably overstepped my authority a (bit) there. I’m not used to having too many authorities to work with. I’ve been pretty much on my own. I did realize that Tony might be a little bit upset about it. He was, he was a little upset.
“At first he said, ‘Oh, wow, we can’t really do this because 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'”
By the time Haas got a chance to talk to Stewart in depth, he’d already made Busch an offer.
“When I finally did talk to (Stewart), he was saying, ‘Maybe we should wait a little while,'” Haas said. “I think he actually said, ‘You need to wait a while.’ I kind of made an offer to Kurt here, I don’t know if he’s going to take it or not, and if he takes it, I’m not backing down. That’s where we were.
“About a week later, Tony said, ‘Okay, all right.’ What are you going to do? Don’t have much choice. It’s a series of events. Chance meeting Kurt at the General Motors dinner, Tony being incapacitated where I couldn’t talk to him. I wanted to do something. I stepped up and said I would fund it.
“It’s very difficult to find a sponsor in less than 24 hours. So we did that, too. We did a lot of stuff. That’s why we’re here today.”
SHR will expand its physical plant with a new building on 30 acres the organization already owns. It will be competition director Greg Zipadelli’s task to oversee the new car builds — and to try to find a balance among four extremely competitive drivers.
“We built a rubber room upstairs — that’s the first thing we did,” Zipadelli quipped. “When you have four passionate drivers, I would much rather deal with that than to try to figure out how to get them going. You’re born with that. The competitiveness that these guys have, that’s what you need in this sport.”
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