Kurt Busch heads to Stewart-Haas. How will that affect his chance to make the Chase?
Kurt Busch is set for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season after he was added to Stewart-Haas Racing as the team owned by Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind., expands to four cars next year. But before Busch switches teams he still has to grab a spot in NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship” with his current team at Furniture Row Racing.
With just two races remaining including, the Labor Day Weekend contest at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night, Busch is 12th in the standings without a victory, but he is only six points out of 10th place which would earn the final points paying entry into the 12-driver lineup that will determine the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Positions 11-12 go to the drivers from positions 11-20 with the most victories after next Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway.
The drivers tentatively in the two Wild Card positions include Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex, Jr. and Stewart-Haas Racing driver and this year’s Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman. Each driver has one victory this season but Truex suffered a broken wrist in a crash at Bristol Motor Speedway last Saturday night and will compete with a cast on his wrist Sunday night.
Newman is in his final season at Stewart-Haas Racing as 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick moves over to that team to join Stewart, who suffered a severely fractured leg in a non-NASCAR race four weeks ago and will be out the remainder of the 2013 season. Also on the team is 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and former IZOD IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick.
The addition of Busch for next season gives the team a potent driver lineup that also features some very strong and temperamental personalities. And while each of these four drivers isn’t afraid to show some hot tempers, they know how to succeed with collective totals of four Sprint Cup championships (Busch in 2004 and Stewart in 2002, 2005 and 2011), 36 poles and 93 wins.
“The excitement is just at an all?time high,” Busch said. “To be in this position, it's amazing to have Gene Haas (who co-owns the team along with Stewart) call you up and say, ‘Let's go do this, win some races together.’ To have the opportunity to have Stewart?Haas as the emblem on the door as I go to work every day, work on making faster racecars with all the mechanics, but also to work alongside Tony Stewart as a co?owner and as a driver, he sees things from the driver's seat that I've been trying to explain for years to team personnel and owners. That's what makes his position so valuable.
“To have a guy like Kevin Harvick that I've gotten a chance to work with at RCR this year, the Furniture Row situation, behind the scenes, carrying a banner on it that says Kurt Busch. Harvick and I, an amazing connection we've had all through our career. Being rookies together, now to be coming to the same program at the same time.
“Then with Danica and her growth. I've always tried to take young drivers under my wing, show them some things around the track. That will be a nice situation for me to be in as well.
“The opportunity is about people. That's what makes this so important that I've neglected in the past, is understanding the people, knowing that that makes the difference if you're going to Victory Lane or not.
“Stewart?Haas, Gene, Tony, this combination is so powerful. That's what makes it so exciting. It's tough for me. I have to remember I have 12 weeks left in the regular season. Right now if we can have two good weeks, we'll make the Chase.”
And that is first and foremost on Busch’s mind this weekend at Atlanta because he turned down a contract extension with Furniture Row Racing in order to make the move to Stewart-Haas. His current team expressed tremendous disappointment at that decision, but must now work together to get into the final 12-driver lineup that will determine the series championship over the final 10 races of the season.
"We need to take care of our own business and not worry about anything else," Busch said. "The Chase has been a goal of our single-car team all year and right now we're on the doorstep, ready to kick in that door."
After leading 54 consecutive laps early in the race at Bristol, his Chevrolet experienced hub failure in the right rear wheel assembly. Busch finished 31st and dropped three positions to 12th in the driver standings. He is currently six points out of 10, the final Chase spot before the two-wildcard entries.
“We’re still in the hunt and have to go out there and nail these next two races (at Atlanta and Richmond) with solid results,” said Busch, winner of the first Chase in 2004. “I am confident we’ll have a fast car at Atlanta, and we need to take care of it, avoid mistakes and be patient. We bounced back from finishing in the 30s before and that’s exactly what we have to do starting with the Atlanta race.”
Busch heads to Atlanta where he has three wins, four top-five and nine top-10 finishes with 685 laps led at the 1.54-mile superspeedway.
“Atlanta ranks in the top-three for me in regards to speed, enjoyment, success and knowing my way around the track,” noted Busch. “We did a tire test in Atlanta and feel that our No. 78 Furniture Row/Beautyrest Chevrolet hotrod will be ready to contend there this weekend.”
Admittedly, however, Furniture Row Racing was extremely disappointed that Busch has decided to leave the team after building it into a Chase contender.
“It was always our intention to extend Kurt's contract with Furniture Row Racing,” said Furniture Row Racing general manager Joe Garone. “We made him an offer last week to continue as the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet in 2014 and beyond. Though he did not accept our offer we respect his decision and wish him future success. His driving skill and being a dedicated team player will always be appreciated at Furniture Row Racing. But for right now the main focus for Kurt and the team is to qualify for the Chase and contend for the 2013 Sprint Cup Series championship.
“Furniture Row Racing’s technical and engineering programs along with a talented road crew have made great strides this season, which have been evident with the consistently fast race cars that we have brought to the track week in and week out. We, along with our technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, are deeply committed to continuing the work in progress. We are currently in a search process for a new driver in 2014, one who shares the same commitment and winning attitude that we all do at Furniture Row Racing.”
While Furniture Row is disappointed that Busch is leaving at the end of this season, his new team is incredibly excited over the prospects of another talented driver joining the operation.
“It's not often that you get the opportunity to expand the way things are in this sport today,” said Stewart-Haas Racing Competition Director Greg Zipadelli. “From where I'm sitting, it's awesome. I know from the time we had the meeting yesterday with the guys, the things I've heard in the last 24 hours, how excited they are, that means an awful lot. That's encouraging to me that these guys will jump onboard and do what it takes. We'll certainly do our best to perform at the highest level next year.”
But with four very strong possibilities at Stewart-Haas Racing, Zipadelli may need to add an additional room to the race shop.
“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.
“We'll deal with what comes our way on a weekly basis and we'll continue to race. It's as simple as that. I think what makes this unique is there's three guys and Danica that all had their days. I think they can all help each other. At least that's the theory I'm going with.”
Now that Busch is set for his Sprint Cup ride for 2014 there remains another goal that he would like to achieve and that is the Indianapolis 500. He tested for Andretti Autosport in an IndyCar and completed the Rookie Orientation Program this past May. There was no opportunity to put a plan together for him to compete in the 97th Indianapolis 500 on May 26, but he is now on a team where the owner/driver has a deep love for the Indy 500 and competed in the “World’s Biggest Race” five times from 1996-99 and again in 2001.
“It's something that's still on the table,” Busch admitted. “There's certain timelines that I've agreed to with Michael Andretti if we're still going to do the deal. We're working on things. I mention that to Tony when we got together. He said, Man, if you're going to run Fontana this year, I'm rolling with you and I'm going to be there with you.
“There's still the concern of running extracurricular races. But right now the focus is obviously on these next two weeks and getting the 78 car in the Chase. We'll see what opportunities are ahead. Everything has to be the right situation for it to happen.”
It was Gene Haas that approached Busch at the Chevrolet Dinner in Indianapolis before this year’s Brickyard that helped put his deal together for next year. And when the final decision was made it was Haas that pushed for this move and made it happen while Stewart has been out of commission while he recovers from leg surgery.
“I talked to Kurt, found out that he really didn't have a firm contract with his current team,” Haas recalled. “I was a little surprised at that because we had talked to him the previous year. We were just trying to find out where he stood. When he took the 78 ride, you know, usually it's for several years. When I was talking to him, he said, ‘No, no, there's some transitions, they're going to try to find out what manufacturer they're going with before they announce the driver.’ That was Indianapolis, only a few weeks ago.
“I wanted to go forward with that. Tony broke his leg. I didn't have really a chance to talk to Tony about it at all since he wasn't really talking to anybody. So I kind of did this on my own, probably overstepped my authority a tich 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.’ There's a whole line. He actually is an astute businessman. He thought about all these little things, where are we going to get the people, the money, where are the buildings going to come from. I didn't think about any of that. From Tony's standpoint, he's more of a businessman. I just thought it would be kind of neat to have.
“That's how it came about. We all know Tony's problems he was having, so I couldn't talk to him too much. When I finally did talk to him, he was saying, ‘Maybe we should wait a little while.’ 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.’ He thought, it's okay.
“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.”
The roots of this relationship began at a corporate dinner in Indianapolis and were finalized with an announcement at Stewart-Haas Racing in Concord, North Carolina last Monday. And in between was a phone call from a number that Busch didn’t recognize.
“I got a phone call on a Monday after a race,” Busch explained. “I was unboxing things I got shipped back from South America when we went on our vacation in the July off week. I got this bowl that I really liked. It came in a thousand pieces when I got it back. So I'm gluing it together with super glue along with Patricia. The phone is ringing. It's not a number I recognize, it's Monday, I should take it.
“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. There's a thousand guys they could have called and I'm glad they called me.”
Busch’s 8-year-old son, Houston, suggested his next number should be 360 because Busch’s career has come “Full Circle.” It certainly has been a long, strange ride for the driver.
“It's been a great journey,” Busch said. “When I first started out, I was an undiscovered punk out on the West Coast. Jack Roush put me in his truck. I didn't know where the brake pedal was apparently because I ran into everything. We had a start to the truck season that was unreal. By the end of my first truck season, I'm running Cup cars. So from running late models on a Saturday night short track, not knowing how you're going to scrape together enough money to get to the next race with gas money, nine months later I'm running Cup cars.
“I was just going as fast as ever, I never knew when to slow down or what was next, I just kept going. With the different transitions through life, coming from young 20s into the later 20s, now being 35, I find myself in a great position with stability in the sport, knowing what I've done wrong, knowing what I've done right, then having a guy like Gene Haas believing in you and wanting to reach new heights with his team, where I still want to go, what I still want to achieve.
“The Stewart?Haas Racing combination is incredible. I'm blessed to have this opportunity and at the same time I'm pulling out my old go?kart that my dad got me when I was little, dusting it off, changing the carburetor in it, putting Houston in the seat so he can go drive around in the parking lot so I can teach him the same things that my dad taught me.”