What is Stewart-Haas Racing to do with Kurt Busch?
Without disclosing the details, NASCAR announced on Monday that Kurt Busch agreed to their terms on a process for reinstatement. At least he now knows what's expected from the sanctioning body. In the meantime, what is the team to do with him? Suspended by both NASCAR and Chevrolet, Busch is facing an uphill battle in his quest to return to the Sprint Cup series. The team has little to gain in standing by Kurt's side indefinitely. Yet to permanently separate themselves from Busch would cause enormous pain for the team as well. There's no easy answers and the only certainty is that this is a decision that SHR put off all offseason only to have it placed front and center due to forces outside of their control.
It was only eighteen months ago that team co-owner Gene Haas wooed and hired Busch while Stewart recovered from a broken leg. Haas wanted Busch badly enough to put his own company's logo, Haas Automation, on the hood. He spent millions of dollars to ramp up the team's facilities and personnel to support a fourth team. There was always a risk that the investment could blow up in his face; Busch was a driver with a history of on-track feuds and off-track temper issues. No one could have foreseen Busch's current troubles but even a casual observer could see that the potential for trouble was there.
That trouble has arrived. Whether NASCAR should have suspended Kurt is another matter entirely; in a column written the weekend of the announcement, I argued that the action was wrong. But now that they have, SHR has to deal with the consequences. The only way Kurt comes back to the track is if he is ultimately exonerated of the charges. That process will take months to play out as the local district attorney's office hasn't even announced whether or not they will pursue charges.
NASCAR helped cause this dilemma for SHR and they have too much invested reputationally to back down now. They saw how much flak the NFL took in its mishandling of the Ray Rice investigation and they were determined to avoid a similar narrative for NASCAR. CEO Brian France admitted as much last fall, stating,“What's not lost on us by any stretch is the rightful heightened awareness on domestic abuse and violence, and so you can expect our policies to reflect the understandable awareness that that's not going to be tolerated,” France said. “The past of how any league might have handled some of this is one thing. It's pretty clear when you see what's happening around the country and in some of the other leagues that our policy will reflect the significance and importance that it should.” So there's no way Busch returns until the public says that he's been punished enough. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Yet Gene Haas didn't put everything at risk to have Regan Smith drive a car for him. Smith is a capable driver and (outside of Harvick) has posted the team's best average finish over the first two races this year. However, the #41 team exists solely because Haas wanted Kurt Busch to win him a championship. If that possibility is no longer on the table, how much longer will Haas continue to fund this vanity project? He's a fantastically wealthy man and could easily keep the team alive as long as he wants. He was willing to do it for Busch. But will he continue to do so for Smith or another replacement-level driver?
Moreover, what of the people who came aboard to support the team? The engineers at the shop, the pit crew members, the other support staff are on the payroll and count on the #41 for their livelihoods. Tony Gibson moved over from Danica Patrick's #10 team this past offseason to work as crew chief on the #41. That conversation would probably have been a lot different had Gibson known that Busch would be gone before Daytona and the team's very existence in question by March. All of those people have a right to know what the future holds for the team because all involved know that the present setup is temporary at best.
Haas still wants to win races as both a lead sponsor and a team owner; otherwise he wouldn't be in the process of building a Formula 1 team. If there was another driver out there that Haas believed could carry him to that success, Busch would be gone tomorrow. For the time being, that driver simply doesn't exist. Since Haas stuck by Busch this past offseason he was unable to pursue any of the drivers who were available then. To be fair, the biggest name free agent (Carl Edwards) was already signed with Joe Gibbs Racing so it wasn't as if the team had a lot of options.
Sticking by Busch's side also likely angered NASCAR. In the past, NASCAR has often allowed teams to handle this kind of punishment themselves. Busch's own history has two examples of this. They didn't fire Busch for getting stopped by police for reckless driving in Arizona- they allowed Jack Roush to do that. They didn't park Busch after his outburst at Dr. Jerry Punch- they allowed Roger Penske to terminate his contract instead. Instead of removing this problem from NASCAR's plate, Haas loudly supported Busch. With charges hanging like the Sword of Damocles over his head, Busch was able to count on the support of both his primary sponsor and team co-owner. Haas wasn't budging and as a result NASCAR felt like they had to act. That's not something the France family is going to forget.
The rant that ended Kurt Busch's tenure at Penske Racing
Ultimately, the question facing SHR is a simple one. What's the endgame for Kurt Busch and this team? Do they plan on enduring both NASCAR's anger and waiting out the public's interest- knowing that criminal charges could appear down the road? Keep in mind that Haas himself served two years in prison in the late 2000s over income tax evasion charges. He's no stranger to lawyers and criminal allegations. He seems to feel that Busch is a kindred spirit and worthy of his support to date. But a lot of money has been spent to build the seemingly perfect team for Kurt and he won't be able to drive the car.
If Haas gives up on the Busch dream, what are his options realistically to keep his other dream alive? The other dream, of winning races and championships with Haas on the hood, still requires a top-flight driver in the car. Who's out there? While he's no possibility for 2015, an interesting long-term answer might be Denny Hamlin. The JGR driver's contract expires at the end of this season. He's watched the team sign devote major resources to bringing Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards aboard and is going to want his own big dollar deal at some point. As the longest-tenured driver on the team and a regular championship contender, he's earned it. Will he truly want to spend the remaining prime of his career at Roush Fenway Racing's Toyota branch as a third option?
Hamlin would be a tantalizing talent for Haas to snap up. Like Busch, he's had his fair share of controversy on the track. But unlike Busch, Hamlin's controversy ends when the car goes on the hauler. He's also won 21 races and finished inside the top ten in points in all but one of the past seven seasons. If he chooses not to resign with JGR, he will be in demand in many places other than Stewart-Haas Racing. Gene Haas would be a fool not to consider the possibility and while Haas is many things he is nobody's fool.
So the team has been faithful to their commitment to Kurt Busch over the past six months. They have stood by his side when other owners might have let him go. But a racing team is only as faithful as its options. Those options are limited in 2015; they can cut Busch and close the team; they can cut Busch and replace him with a driver without half his talent; or they can keep the team open and wait for NASCAR to finally give in months down the road. The options for 2016 are another story entirely.