KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (AP) — Gene Haas wanted to build a dream team, with an opportunity to see his name in Victory Lane. He wasn’t going to let Tony Stewart stand in his way of making that happen.
Haas admitted Tuesday he went rogue in courting Kurt Busch for a non-existent fourth team at Stewart-Haas Racing while Stewart was incapacitated with a broken leg earlier this month. When he finally brought his business partner up to speed on his expansion plans, Stewart balked.
But Haas forged ahead anyway with a multi-year offer to Busch, who was introduced Tuesday as the newest driver at SHR, where officials are now scrambling to make room at an organization that will double from two cars in 2012 to four next season.
“I don’t think Tony was exactly enthralled with what I did,” Haas said. “But I think he saw it my way, you know? Either that or get out of the building.”
Haas was laughing during two different recollections Tuesday of how he sidestepped Stewart during the lightning-fast courtship of Busch, which apparently began at a General Motors dinner in Indianapolis before the Brickyard in late July and ended last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway with Busch accepting Haas’ offer.
But the message Haas delivered was very clear: Stewart, the three-time NASCAR champion, is the front man of the race team but Haas is still very much a player in the organization he founded in 2002.
He brought Stewart aboard in 2009 in a co-owner role to bring legitimacy to the team and help get the cars to Victory Lane, and Stewart has delivered.
Now Haas wants to be bigger and better, and wants to see his CNC machine company, Haas Automation, enjoy the spoils. He’ll fund Busch’s car out of pocket and sponsor the 2004 NASCAR champion himself.
Busch, who spent Sunday with Stewart watching the IndyCar race at Sonoma on television, said Stewart got a kick out of the financials.
“Tony was slapping me a high-five, he says, ‘We’re tapping into Gene’s wallet the way I wanted to,'” Busch said.
Haas insisted getting his name on a car was his primary motivation.
“It was an opportunity for Haas Automation to be a primary sponsor. This is going to be my shot at being a primary sponsor, going to the Daytona 500, the Brickyard as the primary sponsor,” he said. “Haas Automation has never been in the winner’s circle, and I’m sure that’s going to change next year. So that’s my primary reason for basically pushing this expansion. It’s been met with a little bit of resistance.”
Stewart, who broke his leg in two places in an Aug. 5 sprint car crash, was not present for the hour-long news conference to introduce Busch. But in a statement issued by the team, he praised Busch’s talent and seemed neutral in tone on expansion.
“When Gene Haas laid out his plans for what he wanted to do in regard to this race team’s future, which included bringing Kurt on board in a fourth car, it was impressive,” Stewart said. “You can’t stand still in this business. You have to constantly improve. Gene’s investment in this race team ensures the success of Stewart-Haas Racing for many years to come.”
SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli, who joked at one point he’s built a rubber room at the shop to deal with the 2014 driver lineup of Stewart, Busch, Danica Patrick and Kevin Harvick, tried to calm any misconception of a rift between co-owners by clarifying Stewart’s position on expansion.
After all, Stewart in July cited an inability to expand to four teams in releasing Ryan Newman to make room for Harvick.
“Tony was very much in favor of the fourth team,” Zipadelli said. “What Tony was against was us trying to get it done for next year, just so you don’t read anything more into it. Tony was in the hospital. Tony didn’t know the discussions that were going on. When we all met and talked about it and assured him we would do our best to make sure things didn’t slip through the cracks, it took him a couple days to process it.
“But it’s an opportunity of a lifetime for a race team to have a caliber of a driver like this. I know he’s very excited about it now. But it’s a little overwhelming when you’re first hit with it.”
With Busch in the lineup, SHR will have three drivers with a combined 96 Cup victories and four championships. They also have a combined 675 top-10 finishes.
Busch leaves Furniture Row Racing, where he was in a one-year deal and trying hard to get back with a top team after his 2011 firing from Penske Racing following too many temper tantrums. He’s turned Furniture Row, a single-car team with one win in its history, into a car that runs up front with a shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Haas believes Busch will do even more than that at SHR. And once Busch starts winning, Stewart will see that Haas was right all along.
“Since it wasn’t Tony’s idea, he was taken aback a little bit by it. But I think he saw it wasn’t a bad idea,” Haas said. “In retrospect it looks like it’s going to be a great idea. If we don’t win any races next year, hey, I’m going to look like an idiot.
“I take gambles, I made a decision, and I think I’m going to be proven right. I think we’re going to win a lot more races than anybody ever thought possible.”
– By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
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