So now that Kurt Busch has signed the multi-year contract with Stewart-Haas Racing that’s been rumoured for the last week or so, the question becomes: what is really going on there?
When the season started six months ago, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick drove for that team. Then it was announced that Kevin Harvick would be joining in 2014 to make Stewart-Haas a four-car outfit.
But Newman was told by Tony Stewart that he was being let go at the end of the season because there wasn’t sponsorship for a fourth car and the company wasn’t ready to take the next step anyway. Then Stewart broke his leg sprint-car racing.
Out of the blue last week, Kurt Busch was rumoured to be leaving Furniture Row for SHR. It officially happened over the weekend and co-owner Gene Haas - who really has been an almost-silent partner since he teamed up with Tony - makes a big deal Monday out of the fact that it was his idea, that he went after Busch and that sponsorship would come from one of his own companies.
This is a quote from a story on ESPN.com that I think is very telling:
"I'd be happy to have a driver like that on our team," Haas said. "You'd win a lot of races. I'd really be happy for my company, Haas, to be in the winner's circle. I've never been there. I want to be there with that name."
Gee, Gene. I always thought every time Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman won a race or a championship in a Stewart-Haas car that your name was, indeed, right there in winner’s circle. I don’t understand the, "I’ve never been there" bit.
Or are you really saying that you want your name to be in winner’s circle without Tony Stewart’s in front of it?
Everybody is focusing on the volatility within that team – Stewart and Busch have had anger-management issues and Harvick is certainly no shrinking violent. There’s absolutely no doubt internal combustion is going to happen at some point.
But my thesis is that something else is going on and whether it becomes clear during SHR’s promised media conference Tuesday or six months down the line, the fact of the matter is that this is the beginning of the end for that team.
I suggest - as I’ve written previously - that all hell broke loose internally when Stewart suffered his broken leg and it quickly became apparent that he was finished for the year. Millions of dollars were lost, as a result, and sponsors were most upset.
Gene Haas had to protect his part of the investment. It’s possible that he might not know what’s going to happen with Stewart: will Tony continue sprint car racing when he recovers and what effect will that have on his personal NASCAR sponsorship? Harvick and Patrick, meantime, are delivering their sponsorship (Budweiser and Go Daddy) but can just as easily take it elsewhere if the situation warrants. So it became clear to Gene Haas that he needed his own guy and so he went out and got him.
I suspect that while Busch is driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, his contract might well be with Haas alone. And if the Stewart part implodes at some point, the Haas side will be able to carry on.
On the other hand, it might be none of the above. It might very well be what it is: a four-car team that will sure have everybody talking about it.
Or, it might be that Haas hired Busch to essentially take over from Stewart while Tony steps back and takes on more a "face" roll at Cup races and goes sprint car racing every chance he gets. Or Busch might be going in as a driver and could become half-owner at some point.
Whatever, the hiring of Kurt Busch is one of those way-more-than-meets-the-eye deals. Mark my words, it’s a signal that something’s up.
- NORRIS McDONALD