Rumours connect Kurt Busch to Stewart-Haas for 2014
20 August 2013
One of the biggest news stories coming out of last weekend's race at Michigan International Speedway was the third place finish for Kurt Busch, the latest in a string of strong performances from the 2005 NASCAR Cup champion which has seem him propel the #78 Furniture Row Racing car into unlikely Chase contention.
Busch is now in ninth place in the standings with just three races remaining before the Chase cut-off after Richmond next month. Making the Chase with a relatively low-profile one-car shoestring operation would be a huge achievement for Busch, who is currently in front of some big names in the sport including Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle as well as Hendrick Motorsport's Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon.
Not surprisingly, the rumours have already started about where Busch might head next season after his current one-year deal with Furniture Row Racing expires. Busch himself confirmed this weekend that he's already received multiple approaches from teams in the NASCAR paddock for his services in 2014.
"I've received offers from multiple teams," Busch told ESPN.com on Monday. "This isn't a decision I'm taking lightly. I'm looking at what teams have planned long term and want to be in a place where my opinion and input is valued.
"I like to be involved in the process like I have been here at Furniture Row," Busch added when asked what he was looking for in prospective 2014 race deals. "At the same time, I was hoping to not have this distraction while working with my guys to get us in the Chase."
FoxSports.com reported on Sunday that one of the offers in question was from Stewart-Haas Racing, although Busch himself would neither confirm nor deny this speculation. An approach from SHR would certainly be a surprise given that the team had appeared to rule out any possibility of running a fourth car in the near future, after announcing last month that current driver Ryan Newman would be let go at the end of the season in order to make way for the arrival of Kevin Harvick in the squad alongside Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick.
Ironically, Newman is now the team's best chance to get into Chase contention this season. He's currently in 15th place in the standings, with Patrick in 27th and Stewart sidelined for the rest of the year because of his broken leg. Meanwhile SHR is yet to find a considerable proportion of the necessary sponsorship funding for Harvick's full 36-race season next year, and has said that there was no realistic chance at finding the money to run a fourth team for Newman.
“I truly wish we were able to facilitate four teams at this time,” Stewart had lamented when Newman's exit from the team was announced. “We are just not able to do that. Down the road I'm sure if that becomes a possibility that he will most definitely will be on the list to fill the fourth seat again."
But speaking with the media on Monday to announce the appointment of Cup veteran Mark Martin as Stewart's replacement for the rest of 2013, SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli appeared to confirm that the team was considering the feasibility of adding Busch to its line-up next season.
"Obviously, there's options out there," said Zipadelli when asked if the team had offered Busch a ride for next season. "We're looking at everything that's there. There is nothing done."
Zipadelli was twice pressed to comment further about whether the team was in discussions with Busch, and he deflected the question back to the matter in hand on both occasions: "Like I said, we've got two big things going on here right now with the #39 having an opportunity to make the Chase and getting Mark Martin over here, get him acclimated with the guys and how we do things and heading to Bristol. We'll take it week by week."
SHR spokesman Mike Arning was similarly vague when addressing the topic. "Stewart-Haas Racing constantly strives to improve itself, and expansion is something that is often discussed,” he said in a team statement. “If the right opportunity presents itself, it's something the team will certainly consider."
The team made clear that if anyone was under consideration for a possible fourth car it was Busch and only Busch and that no other drivers were being considered - not even Newman, who is yet to confirm his own plans for 2014.
One possibility is that rather than a fourth car, SHR might be concerned about just how quickly Tony Stewart will be able to return to full-time Cup competition after breaking his right tibia and fibula in a regional winged sprint car race in Southern Iowa two weeks ago. The team has already stated that Stewart will not be back in the car this year, but there appear to be lingering doubts over whether he will even be race-fit in time for the Daytona 500 in February 2014 let alone all the pre-season testing and development activity.
"We expect a full recovery by Daytona or close to it," was the best Zipedelli could offer at this point. "It's a bad break to the leg, and he needs time to go through the process of healing, rehabilitation, all those things."
However, it's highly unlikely that a short-term stand-in role would satisfy Busch. The 35-year-old originally born and raised in Las Vegas has had a tempestuous Cup career, with an acrimonious split with Roush Fenway at the end of 2005 in order to join Penske Racing, which itself came to an end "by mutual agreement" after a frustrating 2011 season saw him in some public rows with team owner Roger Penske as well as a falling out with respected EPSN pit lane reporter Dr Jerry Punch at the season finale at Homestead-Miami.
That left Busch without a seat for 2012 and had many wondering whether the former Cup champion would ever find his way back to a competitive car in the future, after appearing to have become something of a media liability. He resorted to agreeing to drive for James Finch's appropriately-named Phoenix Racing team and to a stint in the Nationwide Series for his brother Kyle's new team, and immediately started to remind observers of his undoubted driving talent which saw him cherry-picked by Furniture Row Racing to replace Regan Smith in the #78 in 2013.
Busch could well decide to stay put with the team next season: “It's cool to have talks with Furniture Row about what we can do in 2014 and beyond," Busch said.
But getting within reach of being in the Chase, and moreover looking as though he's purged some of those hot-headed demons that had been plaguing him in his final year at Penske, has made Busch once again an appealing prospect for many of the big teams - although a return to the likes of Roush Fenway or Penske is highly unlikely given the circumstances of his departure from both.
Instead, one of the most obvious possible openings for Busch for 2014 would be the #42 Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing car. The team has been floundering in recent seasons and earlier this month decided that shock treatment was necessary, with Chip Ganassi deciding not to renew the contract of his close friend Juan Pablo Montoya at the end of the current season.
If Ganassi is after someone with a proven track record of shaking up seemingly moribund Sprint Cup teams, then it's hard to think how Kurt Busch could be any more obvious a choice for the #42 - and Busch confirmed that he'd been thinking about and talking with EGR in recent days.
“The Ganassi thing came up and other phone calls have happened," he admitted.
However, the current speculation is firmly revolving around the possible if somewhat surprising possibility of Busch joining up with Stewart, Patrick and Harvick - and if that happened then it would without question be one of the biggest and most tantalising team line-ups in Sprint Cup in 2014.