Gene Haas, the founder and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, did something unusual during Tuesday’s press conference to announce Kurt Busch as the team’s fourth driver for 2014: He spoke with a level of candor rarely heard at NASCAR events these days.
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And he made it abundantly clear that he was calling the shots for the team, at least at the moment.
Haas admitted that his partner and co-owner, Tony Stewart, was opposed to expanding to four cars next year, and with good reason: Stewart has begun a long rehab period to repair two bone breaks suffered in his right leg in an Aug. 5 sprint car crash.
And on top of that, this year’s expansion at SHR — adding a third car for Danica Patrick — hasn’t exactly worked out swimmingly. That didn’t deter Haas one bit.
“I don’t think Tony was exactly enthralled with what I did,” Haas said of the signing of Busch. Then, laughing, Haas added, “But I think he saw it my way, you know. Either that or get out of the building.”
It may well have been a joke on Haas’ part, but judging from some of the nervous looks on the faces of SHR personnel gathered at the team’s headquarters in Kannapolis, N.C., not everyone was laughing.
Since starting the old Haas CNC Racing in 2002, which became Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, Haas generally has kept a very low profile. In the SHR years, Stewart has always been the public face of the team. Whether it’s because Stewart is out injured, or Haas has decided to assert himself, it became very obvious Tuesday that hiring Busch and dropping Ryan Newman was Haas’ decision.
Haas said he has talked to Busch in years past but the discussions began to heat up after the two chatted at a Chevrolet dinner during the Brickyard 400 weekend in Indianapolis. Eight days after the Brickyard race, Stewart broke his leg, and has been out of action since.
So Haas stepped up and brokered the deal to sign Busch.
“I wanted to go forward with that,” Haas said. “Tony broke his leg. I didn’t have really a chance to talk to Tony about it at all since he wasn’t really talking to anybody. So I kind of did this on my own, probably overstepped my authority a tick there. I’m not used to having too many authorities to work with. I’ve been pretty much on my own. I did realize that Tony might be a little bit upset about it. He was. He was a little upset.”
SHR’s competition director, Greg Zipadelli, said Stewart was not opposed to a fourth car or hiring Busch, but he wanted to wait another year.
“Tony was very much in favor of the fourth team,” said Zipadelli. “What Tony was against was us trying to get it done for next year. Just so you don’t read anything more into it. … 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.”
By then, the deal was on the table.
“When I finally did talk to him (Stewart), he was saying, ‘Maybe we should wait a little while,’” said Haas. “I think he actually said, ‘You need to wait a while.’ I kind of made an offer to Kurt here, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to take it or not, and if he takes it, I’m not backing down.’ That’s where we were.”
Haas’ machine-tool company, Haas Automation, will be Busch’s full-time sponsor next season. And Haas said that stepping up as a sponsor was one of the reasons he chose not to re-sign Ryan Newman for next year, and instead hire Busch.
“I just simply wanted a change and an opportunity to do something different,” said Haas. “I don’t think this says anything negative about Ryan. He’s been a great driver, done a great job. After five years I just feel that I want to take hold of an opportunity that was presented to me. It gives me a chance to, you know, be a sponsor and direct things the way I wanted to direct them.”
As for the complicated dynamics of being a 50-50 partner with Stewart, Haas admitted things could be changing.
“I think the most interesting thing was the fact that Kurt Busch and Haas Automation coming together was really done by me,” Haas said. “I guess that is different than what you’ve seen in the past. In that respect, yes, there’s going to be new dynamics. My main goal here is to win races. I think Tony’s main goal is not only to win races but to run a successful business. I’m more interested in seeing the winning part of it. Maybe Tony is going to be more the businessman now.”