NASCAR Martinsville 2014 weekend recap: Kurt Busch finds redemption

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

How a driver once considered a pariah and an owner labeled a maverick joined together to win Sunday’s NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway.

With a championship on his mantle and now 25 career victories on his résumé, there have never been questions about the talent Kurt Busch possessed.

No, the questions about Busch have always centered on the stuff that happened off the track. Specifically, an inability to control a fiery temper which cost him a pair of high-profile rides with Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske, the former occurring following the 2011 season.

"I ran a lot of my early part of my career as an individual. I didn't respect my team, my team owners ... you've got to put life in perspective, and you have to learn from your mistakes." -Kurt Busch

His options bleak and his future very much in doubt Busch had little choice but to accept a ride with the midlevel teams of Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. At each stop his remarkable ability would shine through, but doubts remained whether the 2004 Cup champion would ever secure another opportunity with a top-flight organization.

Gene Haas has always been a maverick. After years of seeing his NASCAR team underachieve with a rotating cast of journeyman drivers the man with an estimated net worth of $740 million had enough of the futility.

Needing to do something dramatic Haas made a blockbuster offer to Tony Stewart: In exchange for half of Haas' team Stewart became the face of the rechristened Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, responsible for courting sponsors and recruiting personnel.

It was an audacious move, which paid immediate dividends.

Almost instantly SHR became a force. Stewart won four times (including the All-Star Race) that first season while the second team with driver Ryan Newman qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Two years later Stewart would memorably win the 2011 championship with a sterling playoff run that saw him win five of 10 Chase races.

Naturally, Haas wanted more.

Having grown weary of Newman's lack of high-level consistency he was jettisoned for Kevin Harvick at the end of last season. That still wasn't enough for Haas, who yearned to see his self-owned business, Haas CNC, sponsor a driver who made it to Victory Lane. And with Stewart, Harvick and the third team of Danica Patrick all fully sponsored this simply wasn't feasible.

Having elevated Furniture Row Racing to unprecedented heights in 2013 (which ultimately would include a Chase berth) and having reshaped his image off the track, Busch had become the most sought-after free agent in NASCAR.

He had many offers, but one stood out amongst all the others.

Haas wanted to create a fourth SHR team solely for Busch. It was an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I ran a lot of my early part of my career as an individual," Busch said. "I didn't respect my team, my team owners.

"To have a guy like Gene Haas believe in you and give you a shot with a brand-new team and a brand-new car. You've got to put life in perspective, and you have to learn from your mistakes."

It wasn't Haas' intention to start a fourth team under the SHR umbrella, as the addition of a third car for Patrick last season had come with the expected growing pains. But it was too tempting of a move for the maverick to resist.

The partnership, however, was fraught with suspicions of whether it would actually work. At SHR Busch would be joining an organization full of  self-described "alpha personalities," not to mention in Stewart and Harvick a pair of drivers he clashed with publically (Stewart is rumored to have punched Busch in closed-door meeting the two had with NASCAR officials).

Despite the misgivings Haas and Busch were adamant they would eventually succeed.

Few thought that success would come just six races into the season, and of all places at Martinsville Speedway. Yet there was Busch on Sunday at a track where he hadn't recorded a top-10 in his last 16 starts battling noted Martinsville master Jimmie Johnson for the win.

Busch muscled his way by Johnson, who owns eight Martinsville victories, with 10 laps to go and never looked back, snapping an 83-race winless streak in the process.

"Basically there were a lot of naysayers and doubters out there about Stewart-Haas Racing," Haas said. "Tony having (broken his leg) last year and it looked like we were all washed up and out of business. But it just goes to show you that there is a team behind everybody that was always the back-up plan we are still going forward."

The win was important not because it validated Haas' gamble, but because Busch had overcome histrionics earlier in the day between himself and Brad Keselowski. Upset with Busch over an innocent run-in the two had on pit road that severely damaged his car, Keselowski placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of his former Team Penske teammate.

After returning to the track numerous laps down and with a car missing its hood and frontend, Keselowski hounded Busch in an effort to frustrate him.

Although growing animated on his radio, even threatening to "go (expletive) that dude's (expletive) face up" post-race, Busch kept his composure behind the wheel; something that just a few years earlier would have been unlikely.

Instead, Busch focused on fulfilling the one mandate Haas had for him when he signed with SHR: Win.

"I love him," Busch said of his car owner. "He's great. He gives us every tool we need to win, and when he hired me he said go for wins. If you go out sliding sideways and you wreck, I'm okay with that. Just bring home those trophies. I said, deal, you're just going to have to carry them out of victory lane."

That first haul out of victory lane came Sunday. And with it the uncertainties about Busch and the validity of SHR running four full-time teams has disappeared. The only questions facing Busch and Haas now are far more positive: Just how many wins can the driver once considered a pariah and the owner with rebellious streak win together?

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