Published August 26, 2013
Five years ago, the NASCAR Sprint Cup team that Gene Haas founded was at the absolute bottom of the standings, race after agonizing race.
Today, the team it evolved into is poised to join the elite operations in the upper echelon of the series, and it's done so because Haas has shown a willingness to make bold moves few of his fellow owners would dare try. The signing of Kurt Busch, which as FOXSports.com's Lee Spencer first reported, will be made official on Tuesday, is merely the latest among them.
First, a quick look back.
Haas, the owner of Haas Automation, a CNC machine-tool manufacturer in Oxnard, Calif., founded Haas CNC Racing in 2002. In that first season, the team entered six NASCAR Sprint Cup races, failing to qualify for three and finishing no higher than 30th in the other three.
From then until the end of the 2008 season, Haas CNC competed in 284 Sprint Cup events, posting just a single top-five finish and only 14 top 10s.
Frustrated with his lack of success, Haas took a radical step, offering then two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart a 50 percent ownership stake in the team, essentially for just showing up. Team owner Rick Hendrick worked quietly behind the scenes to broker the deal.
Stewart, of course, brought a track record of championship performance as a driver, was a comparatively easy sell to sponsors and was a successful team owner in other racing series. Haas figured that was worth giving Stewart a multi-million-dollar stake in the business without having to put any of his cash into it.
It was a bold, but brilliant gamble.
Renamed in 2009 as Stewart-Haas Racing, the once-woebegone outfit has enjoyed a stunning reversal of fortune: In 360 Cup starts under the SHR banner, the squad has won 19 races, scored 78 top-five and 154 top-10 finishes -- not to mention Stewart's amazing 2011 championship run.
"I thought Tony was a little crazy for doing it, but Tony is a little bit smarter than you think sometimes," Haas said in 2011, after Stewart won a championship in just the team's third season. "He obviously saw some potential in what we did. He has a lot of great relationships. Like we had a lot of great relationships with Hendrick, so we had good equipment. Tony had good people."
"Gene gave me the faith and the trust to go get the people that I felt like that we needed to get, and a lot of that was Rick Hendrick, too," Stewart said. "Rick was the one that said, 'Hey, this guy is the guy that I think is going to be a good fit for you.' You know, that's the push in the right direction that you need from somebody like that to give you that confidence."
The aggressive moves didn't stop there.
Next, SHR signed Danica Patrick, who brought along critical sponsorship dollars from GoDaddy.com even if her on-track performance has so far underwhelmed.
Late last year, SHR committed to signing Kevin Harvick for 2014, even though at the time they had no sponsor for him (Budweiser has subsequently signed on).
Now, they have 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch onboard for 2014 as well, giving the team four cars, two of which will be driven by past champions (Stewart and Busch) and one of which will be driven by someone (Harvick) who has finished in the top five in points five times in the last 10 seasons. Only Patrick, who sits 27th in points in her rookie season, isn't a contender to win races week in and week out, let alone a championship.
Does the addition of Busch and Harvick elevate the status of SHR to one of the elite teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, capable of contending for championships year in and year out?
Probably. Like all things in NASCAR, the devil is in the details. Harvick and Busch have had their share of disagreements in the past, but have worked exceptionally well this season, with Richard Childress Racing and Furniture Row Racing sharing a close-knit technical alliance.
After he won the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Harvick praised Busch for giving extremely accurate and highly usable feedback during the weekly post-race debriefs.
Still, there will be many changes at SHR next year, as there were this year, when the team struggled badly out of the gate. Without question, though, there is a huge upside for SHR in 2014.
And there might even be a huge upside for Hendrick Motorsports, too. HMS builds the engines and chassis for SHR and the two teams work together as technical partners, so in theory, anything that helps SHR ought to help HMS as well.
Win, lose or draw, there's no question, though, that the 2014 SHR drivers will form one of the most colorful lineups in all of motorsports, and one of the fastest, too.