At first glance, Kurt Busch’s move to Stewart-Haas Racing after a season at single-car Furniture Row Racing would seem like the driver won the lottery. Busch, a former series champion, took FRR all the way to the Chase in 2013, and despite not winning a race, finished inside the top 10 in points with a season-long 14.7-place average finish. It was the first time a single-car team made the postseason under NASCAR’s Chase format, with Busch earning more top 5s in one season (11) than the team accrued during its last eight years of existence. With equipment like SHR can offer, Busch is a no-brainer for a 16-team Chase spot this season and, in time, his second Sprint Cup title.
In reality, though, the move is a bit more lateral. It’s still a step up, but it’s a step up from Richard Childress Racing equipment, not that of an underfunded, single-car organization. FRR upped its technical alliance with RCR last year to the point where certain employees worked for both programs; despite its Colorado location, FRR was Childress’ de facto “fourth team.” And it was certainly no turn-key operation.
Even in that scenario, Busch remained impressive, earning this opportunity. As an RCR driver, he’d have ranked second only to Kevin Harvick in 2013 after handily outperforming Paul Menard and Jeff Burton. On the PR front, where Busch has posted failing grades for several years, he now rarely missteps under the guidance of girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, who has almost single-handedly remade his image. Even on the track, Busch seemed more controlled last season. Perhaps that was a result of a lack of pressure in a second-tier ride. Or perhaps, after hard lessons learned, Busch has finally grown up.
If so, what he gives SHR, at age 35, is a third title contender in the stable. Busch is a proven champion, along with new boss Tony Stewart, and if RCR cars are a step behind those in Stewart’s house, Harvick should be a favorite as well. What that all means is that if the three teams can share information effectively, it will only make the group stronger. But that’s not a given. All three are elite driving talents, but they are also incredibly volatile — with both Stewart and Harvick having had run-ins with Busch in the past.
In addition, when Busch was announced as the driver of a new, fourth SHR team with sponsorship from in-house Haas Automation, a company owned by team co-owner Gene Haas, Stewart made no secret of his initial dislike of the deal. After all, he had told the media months before that he was cutting Ryan Newman loose because there was no funding for a fourth program. Stewart has mellowed a bit by now, but there is the potential for internal strife. After all, just last April he wanted to punch Busch at Richmond, unhappy with the way he was being raced. But to be fair, Stewart typically wants to do that to someone on a weekly basis.
One team member who will play a key role for Busch’s newly numbered 41 this season is crew chief Daniel Knost. Knost was formerly an engineer for Newman at SHR, and 2014 will be his first season calling the shots for a team. How Knost communicates will be key to success. Even an older, wiser Busch still has a tendency to “lose it” on the radio rather than provide the useful information needed. Knost will need to be able to steer Busch back to fixing the problem rather than compounding it if the team is to be a consistent success.
SHR’s race chassis and engines come from Hendrick Motorsports, so that puts SHR a half-step ahead of RCR. Team owner Haas will make sure the team is well-funded, so there is no reason for Busch not to perform well right out of the box if he can work effectively with Knost.
The key for Busch, more than any other piece of the puzzle, is to be patient and handle the pressure. It’s obvious that Stewart-Haas Racing is making a move to become even more of a powerhouse than it already is by adding Busch and Harvick to the lineup. But meshing could take time, adding frustration for a driver who has waited two years for that “one last chance” at a title-contending ride. If all goes well, this team makes the Chase, but where it goes from there is still up in the air; 2014 could be a bit of a building year for the future more than one of instant success. Can Busch handle that? In November 2011, no one would have expected he’d get this chance, and he’s done a great job of proving doubters wrong. But 2014 will undoubtedly be yet another big test.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Putting the Furniture Row car in the Chase was an enormous compliment to just how good of a driver Busch is,” one competitor says. “He’s able to get the most out of anything that he can drive. His team knows that he gives 100 percent every single time he climbs in the car. And he seems to be a more relaxed individual now that he has his current girlfriend in his life.”
Looking forward, another says: “Busch is going to have to deal with the circumstances around his hiring at Stewart-Haas for some time until his teammates accept him. Whether it’s true or not, the thought that Busch was Haas’s guy and not Tony’s guy is going to weigh heavily on the whole organization. Busch has some lingering bitterness with his new teammates, and if something brings those feelings to the surface, it could get ugly.”
“Kurt has all the talent in the world, but can he co-exist with Stewart and Harvick?” one media member asks. “I can see a Stewart-Harvick clique that excludes Kurt. Despite Stewart saying all the right things, I don’t think he’s a ‘Kurt guy.’ And Haas making this deal basically without Tony’s and Zippy’s knowledge or approval provides an interesting glimpse into the power structure at SHR.”
Looking at Checkers: For all the talk about Busch being back in a competitive ride, it’s rarely noted that he’s won only seven races in a CoT or Gen-6 car — and those came bundled in four years while in Penske equipment.
Pretty Solid Pick: That said, he should parlay his new Hendrick/Stewart-Haas ride into strong showings at any number of places. Much like his new teammate, Kevin Harvick, Busch is versatile.
Good Sleeper Pick: Surprisingly, he’s never won a points-paying plate race. He’s got the dancing partners to do so now — if they can all get along.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville just continues to confound him.
Insider Tip: Will he be “one of the gang” or on an island at Stewart-Haas Racing? If nothing else, this will be fun to watch.
No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: Haas Automation/State Water Heaters
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas/Joe Custer
Crew Chief: Daniel Knost
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 1st (2004)
Hometown: La Vegas, Nev.
Born: Aug. 4, 1978
Photos courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing
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