By Jerry Bonkowski – How do I say this in a nice way?
Stewart-Haas Racing just became NASCAR’s equivalent of the Oakland Raiders in their glory years.
With Tuesday’s press conference announcing that Kurt Busch had signed a multi-year deal with SHR, which will in turn expand to a four-team operation next season, one of the biggest collections of NASCAR’s baddest bad boys just came together.
Will it work? Time will tell.
About the only piece of the puzzle missing is Kyle Busch, Kurt’s younger brother, but that still could happen a few years from now when KyBu’s contract is up with Joe Gibbs Racing.
I tried to think of another similar example, but honestly, it would appear that never in the history of NASCAR has such a conglomeration of both talent and tempestuousness been brought together.
It also shows that what sportsmanship and fellowship can’t bring together, money can.
Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick have both had numerous run-ins with the elder Busch brother over the last decade. While I don’t have the exact number in front of me, I’d venture a guess that between tumultuous trio, there’s been at least a dozen dust-ups.
Scratch that … it’s probably more.
Harvick on numerous occasions has publicly criticized Busch. Stewart and Busch have also run afoul of each other, including a less than gentlemanly skirmish between the new teammates earlier this year that people are still talking about.
And then there’s Danica Patrick, who essentially is SHR’s Ringo in all this: she doesn’t have a dog in this fight, she just goes along with what the boss says and wants. She’ll leave it to John, Paul and George – err, make that Tony, Kevin and Kurt – to be the front men of this band.
The first question that came to mind when I heard that the rumored union of Busch and SHR was finally consummated was simple:
“How will NASCAR’s newest version of the three amigos co-exist from here on out?”
I’m wondering if Harvick knew this was coming, might he have stayed at Richard Childress Racing instead of also jumping to SHR for 2014.
It’s like you take three of the most mischievous troublemakers in a school and put them in the same detention period for any number of infractions.
That’s just a recipe for disaster waiting to boil over. But in this case, is it – or is it a stroke of genius, where one bad boy will elevate the game of the other two bad boys on the team?
Will Busch help SHR? Of course. Even with the incidents that KuBu has gotten himself into throughout his career, including the most notable one at Homestead in 2011 that cost him the best ride of his career (up to now, at least), there’s no question the guy can wheel a race car with the best of ’em.
Look at what he’s done thus far this season for the single-car operation of Furniture Row Racing. If things stay the same in the next two races, Busch will become the first driver in the 10-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup to make NASCAR’s marquis event from a single-car team.
And, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised that with the season he’s had to date, coupled with the knowledge of where he’s going after this season, it inspires and motivates Busch like he’s never been – and then goes out and wins this year’s championship.
“This is the kind of situation every driver wants to be in, and I’m grateful to (SHR co-owner) Gene Haas and Haas Automation for providing me this opportunity,” Busch said in a statement Tuesday. “I didn’t think anyone wanted to win as much as me until I met Gene Haas.”
I still think Busch would have been a better fit at Richard Childress Racing or Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, where he’d be either the No. 1 or No. 2 driver with either operation.
At SHR, he’ll be third in order of strength behind Stewart and Harvick, and fourth on the seniority list.
That is, until he proves otherwise and potentially becomes the organization’s top gun. Don’t think that can happen? Think again.
Stewart proved less than a month ago that he’s human and fallible when he suffered a broken leg that ended his Sprint Cup season. At the same time, Stewart is now 42 years old. He has to be thinking – or at least starting to think – about potential retirement and segueing into a full-time owner-only position.
Look at Indy car racing’s Michael Andretti. He stopped racing full-time before he even hit 40 years old (he had six other one-off starts between 40 and 44 that were part of building up his own organization) and has gone on to build one of the strongest teams in IndyCar.
You don’t think Smoke hasn’t noticed that?
“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 in a statement. “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.”
What’s more, as much as he loves racing on any level, I don’t think you’ll see Stewart follow in the footsteps of his No. 1 idol, A.J. Foyt, and continue racing until he’s almost 60 (Foyt finally hung up his firesuit for good at 57 – that is, if you don’t count the one Sprint Cup and three other Camping World Truck Series races he competed in between the age of 59 and 61).
I was at Road America in 1990 when Foyt suffered the worst crash of his career. He was 55 at the time and came very close to dying that day. After months of recovery and recuperation, Foyt got behind the wheel of an open-wheel Indy car 12 more times, with 11 of those times resulting in nothing more than also-ran finishes.
It was only after his final appearance in the Indianapolis 500 in 1992 (finished ninth) that Foyt finally realized his best racing days were ultimately behind him and it was time to turn over his car to someone who may not have been quite as talented, but surely was far younger, more agile and could recover from injuries much faster.
Kurt Busch just turned 35 earlier this month. He still has a good five to seven more years in him.
Harvick will turn 38 in December. He has probably another good five years left in him.
And Patrick is only 31. If she starts showing marked improvement, she probably has a good seven or more years left in her, as well.
So hiring Busch isn’t as crazy as it sounds. While some could likely make a case that Ryan Newman should have been kept instead of being cut loose at the end of this season, it’s not every day that a former Cup champion becomes available.
Even with the baggage he’s accumulated, why do you think so many teams were chasing Busch to sign with their team?
Partners Stewart and Haas saw that and jumped at the chance. Call it a leap of faith, if nothing else. Haas was so enamored with getting Busch that he put his own money where his mouth was: he’ll personally sponsor Busch in 2014 unless other sponsorship is obtained.
“Kurt Busch is a premier talent, one who gives you the opportunity to win races every week and contend for a championship every year,” Haas said in a statement. “When he became available, we seized the opportunity to make him a part of Stewart-Haas Racing. This is an organization built on winning, and Haas Automation is a company built on performance. Kurt embodies each of those qualities, and it’s why we’re investing in his abilities.
From a talent standpoint, the amalgam of Stewart, Harvick and Busch is close to stock car racing’s equivalent to the New York Yankees’ fabled Murderer’s Row: Four Cup championships and 93 wins between them.
With that kind of lineup, SHR now has the potential to out-perform every other team in NASCAR and become the most-feared organization in the sport from a competitive – and temper – standpoint.
If there ever was a perfect example of the old phrase, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” it happened Tuesday.
Going back to my reference to the Raiders, they were an organization that was made up of players that didn’t always like some of their teammates, but also knew that they were stronger as a whole together than divided individually.
SHR will be the same, in my opinion.
Do I expect Busch, Stewart and Harvick to kiss and make up over past indiscretions between them? Nope.
Do I expect Busch, Stewart and Harvick to become Facebook friends? Unlikely.
Do I expect Busch, Stewart and Harvick to become fishing buddies? Not a chance.
But what I do expect is that their union will put every other team on notice, much like the Raiders did in their hey days of the 1980s and 1990s: you don’t mess around with SHR.