DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kevin Harvick popped in for what he thought was a quick hello with a bedridden Tony Stewart.
Roughly a week after Stewart broke his right leg in a sprint car crash, Harvick was surprised to find his new boss’ bedroom had been turned into an unlikely boardroom. The entire Stewart-Haas organization had gathered to discuss the potential signing of Kurt Busch.
They wanted Harvick’s input on adding a driver who hadn’t exactly endeared himself in the past.
Baggage aside, Harvick knew as well as anyone that Busch was still as good as it gets as a wheelman.
“I was the only guy who had ever worked with him,” Harvick said. “I understood that in my opinion he’s going to be good for the company, from a competition standpoint, to drive the performance of the race cars to be better. And that’s why we are all here: to be fast and win races.”
They were all in on Busch. Former rivals, Busch and Harvick were now the new guys at a suddenly crowded SHR shop.
If Harvick’s arrival, after a career spent driving for Richard Childress Racing, brought euphoria to the shop and a shot in the arm to the fan base, Busch’s arrival was a bit of a curiosity.
Busch was covertly courted by co-owner Gene Haas, the often overlooked “H” in SHR, to round out a dream team of drivers that already included Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, and one of NASCAR’s most popular stars in Danica Patrick.
Busch, Stewart and Harvick have a combined 95 Cup victories, four championships, and Patrick was the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole.
Harvick filled departed Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman’s spot in the lineup, and Haas made the call to add Busch and become a four-car franchise.
Busch’s prodigious talent has never been doubted, with 24 career Cup wins and the 2004 championship etched on his resume.
But his personality has cost him major rides, deep-pocketed sponsors, and turned him into a journeyman driver at only 35.
His 2014 ride with SHR is his fourth team in four seasons, though he revitalized his career and led single-car outfit Furniture Row Racing into a surprising Chase for the Sprint Cup championship berth last season. He finished 10th in the standings and silenced doubters that he’d ever return to a deep-funded organization.
Busch was on pretty good behavior, and says his teams learned, “I wasn’t such a bad guy after all.”
“It’s funny, you work with people and the first thing they tell you was, ‘Wow, I expected worse.’ Perception is reality,” Busch said. “I had to work on that. I couldn’t continue to fight it. I was about producing results on the race track and putting on a good show.”
The 1-2 punch of big-race wins and a brash reputation intrigued Haas.
“The media made a big deal about some of these outbursts, but they all seemed reasonable to me,” Haas said. “Hey, he’s a passionate race car driver. If you stick a mic in front of someone whose car has just been broken, he’s probably going to shove it right back at ya and I don’t blame him.”
Haas founded his organization in 2002 and brought Stewart aboard seven years later to infuse it with credibility, cash and championships.
While Stewart delivered, his trips to Victory Lane and the 2012 championship saw “Smoke” paraded around with his sponsors on his fire suit, not CNC machine manufacturer Haas Automation.
Busch was the one Haas plucked to represent his company and become the driver feted after taking the checkered flag — preferably starting with Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“I think he’s all about winning. That’s all I want to do,” Haas said. “Haas Automation has never been to the winner’s circle and it’s about time. We’re going to do this and break that string, and once we break that string, boom, we’re going to be moving forward.”
Busch has teammates for the first time in three years, though he had plenty of help last year from Harvick. Furniture Row Racing had a technical alliance with RCR that included technology sharing, engineering, and research and development.
“He’s very involved in looking at the information and trying to make himself better,” Harvick said. “You feel like when you ask a question, you are going to get what he feels like is the honest answer.
“So from racing cars and pushing each other forward, it was good for me. We wouldn’t have run as good last year if it wasn’t for the 78 car pushing to make our cars better at RCR and trying different things.”
Haas has an eye on different things as well, namely fielding an F1 team. He wants to double the profits of Haas Automation to $2 billion a year — a goal he believes he can only accomplish by tapping into the global market. Busch can raise Haas’ worldwide profile by driving the No. 41 Chevrolet into Victory Lane.
“The guy can drop the dime and go play with the big dogs,” Busch said. “He’s got the coin to spend in Formula 1 if he wants to go and do it.”
It’s also a reason why Haas didn’t blink when asked last month if he’d be interested in sponsoring Busch should he land a ride for the Indianapolis 500.
“He hasn’t asked me,” Haas said.
Harvick, Busch and Stewart give SHR are a legitimate shot at winning at every track on the circuit. Who knows? Maybe if Patrick can get a win (no matter what Richard Petty says), SHR could field four teams in the Chase.
“That is what the goal is every year,” Stewart said. “Especially with this format, it could happen.”
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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