CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Furniture Row Racing never stood a chance at keeping Kurt Busch once Gene Haas began courting the 2004 NASCAR champion.
A tremendous talent behind the wheel, Busch’s terrible temper led to what was thought to be a career-killing moment in 2011 when he was fired by Penske Racing. It was Furniture Row that rescued him from the back of the pack with six races remaining last season and gave him a chance to be competitive again.
The single-car team based in Denver, far away from the NASCAR hub in North Carolina, didn’t ask much of Busch. Team owner Barney Visser didn’t need his driver to wine and dine a bunch of clients, or be on his best behavior at all times. All he wanted was a wheel man focused on getting the No. 78 to Victory Lane.
The result was a breakthrough season for Furniture Row, which before Busch had one win, three top-five finishes, eight top-10s and 48 laps led in almost 200 races.
Since Busch came on board, the car has six top-five finishes, 14 top-10s, 368 laps led and has qualified on the front row seven times. The team is even in contention for a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, though Saturday night’s 31st-place finish dropped Busch to 12th in the standings with two races remaining to set the field.
But Busch already has one foot out the door. He said Monday he’s accepted Haas’ offer to join Stewart-Haas Racing next season, and will be officially introduced as the driver of a new fourth entry sponsored out of Haas’ pocket on Tuesday.
“Gene wants to win, and wants me to go out there and perform to the best of my abilities,” Busch told The Associated Press on Monday.
Visser wanted the exact same thing. Furniture Row counteroffered last weekend at Bristol, but they knew they could never match Haas’ offer — not on paper and not on the track.
“I think the strength of what we bring isn’t in an offer,” general manager Joe Garone told AP before Saturday night’s race. “It’s what we deliver. Creating an environment where all the focus is on Kurt Busch, 100 percent on him. That’s a big thing. Not a lot of teams can deliver that. A single car team that runs up front — that’s us. I think that’s real valuable. I think that makes a difference and I think that’s career changing.”
It was career changing for Busch, and remember, it came at a time when Busch was fairly untouchable.
James Finch still gave him a ride last season, but his Phoenix Racing was short on cash all season and Finch could never bring in enough corporate backing to make the relationship sustainable.
Visser, the owner of Furniture Row, decided to take the chance. He owns his company and while he’d like to have sponsors, he can operate without them. His interest came at the same time SHR was considering a deal with Busch, but couldn’t make the numbers work — in part because of sponsorship and because Haas wasn’t making the financial commitment he’s doing today.
So it was off to Colorado for Busch, who was still a long way away from the NASCAR heavyweights.
As Garone saw it, it was the perfect time for the pairing.
“There was a time when there was a lot of turmoil and a lot of things going on and distractions and things that made you question whether you even want to be in the sport and what we tried to do coming into this was to take him out of that, and get him away from the things that caused distractions and aggravations,” Garone said. “One of the things that comes to mind is sponsorship commitments and off-track activities, we really do not require a whole lot. Our entire focus is on driving the car and building the relationships with the team and letting him get to a place where he’s comfortable with that, and letting him build strength back within himself.
“I think we’ve seen results from that. He has some real tight, very personal friendships here. We feel that way about him, too. He’s certainly a friend to the team.”
Furniture Row offered Busch a drama-free zone where he could be Kurt Busch, warts and all, and they accepted him for who he was. Because Busch wants to win races and Busch pushed Furniture Row to be better, and with him driving their cars, they were, for the first time in team history, able to run with the big boys.
That was the problem.
Busch is a big boy, and a driver of Busch’s ability should be with a big boy team.
That’s why, at the end of the day, Furniture Row never had a chance.
Busch had a mantra when he left Penske, he wanted to “put the fun back in racing.” What it meant was that he needed to take a step back, serve his time, rebuild his image and get another big team to put their faith in him.
He can check off all those boxes.
Furniture Row may have been the best fit for Kurt Busch the person. But at SHR, he’ll be running with the big dogs again.