Off the track, Busch was tireless in his work with injured U.S. military personnel. He and girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, the president of the Armed Forces Foundation, auctioned off a custom-built Ford Bronco at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale (Ariz.) Collector-Car Auction in January, raising $500,000 for the foundation. Busch also began to take himself a little less seriously. He ran special paints schemes for the movies “Talladega Nights” and “Days of Thunder,” memorizing lines from the movies and bantering with his crew guys on the radio.
And, most critically, Busch and Furniture Row started becoming the Little Team That Could. In a five-race stretch from Pocono in early June to Daytona on the Fourth of July weekend, they finished seventh or better four times. Suddenly, Kurt was ninth in points.
Still, the road toward the Chase for the Sprint Cup was rocky and Busch's hot streak ended with a 31st-place run in the first New Hampshire race and 14th in the Brickyard 400. But that Brickyard week would prove to be a watershed moment in Busch's career: At a Chevrolet team dinner, Gene Haas, the founder and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, approached Busch and asked him if he'd like to join Tony Stewart, Harvick and Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas next year. Haas hadn't even floated the idea by Stewart at the time. Sponsorship, always an issue with any Cup team, was a non-factor. Haas would sponsor the team himself, through his Haas-CNC Automation machine-tool business.
“I bent a few rules, pushed, had some conversations with Kurt,” Haas shrugged. “Everything started to line up. We just needed to figure out how we were going to do this. One of the biggest problems in any race team obviously is sponsorship. With the other three cars having their sponsorship pretty much filled up, it was an opportunity for Haas Automation to be a primary sponsor. In the past, I've always been a co-sponsor on the Stewart‑Haas Racing team. That's a good position to be in. I have no problems with that. This is going to be my shot at being a primary sponsor, going to the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard as the primary sponsor.”
Just days after the initial conversation between Busch and Haas, Stewart suffered a horrific season-ending double compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car crash at Iowa. Haas pushed ahead and signed Busch, not telling Stewart until it was a done deal.
“I kind of did this on my own, probably overstepped my authority a touch there,” Haas said. “I'm not used to having too many authorities to work with. I've been pretty much on my own. But I did realize that Tony might be a little bit upset about it.”
Exactly one week after Haas and Busch announced the deal at SHR headquarters in Kannapolis, N.C., Stewart showed up at the same spot to dispel rumors that he and Haas were at odds over the signing of Busch.
“Gene is not used to having partners,” said Stewart. “Gene is a self-made success story in the CNC industry, he's pretty much been a one-man show doing it, and this is the first time that he's really had a partner. I think going through that process, I don't think that he thought much about talking to me about it until it got further along.”
While all of this was happening, Busch still had his day job with Furniture Row. On track, he put together another hot streak: In the next six races after the Brickyard, Busch posted four top-five finishes, including second place in the final race of NASCAR's 26-race regular season at Richmond.
Has it been perfect? Of course not. Busch leads the Sprint Cup Series in pit road speeding penalties this year and the team, too, has often struggled on pit road. Still, Furniture Row is light years ahead of where it's ever been in the past. Although Busch went winless, he finished the Sprint Cup regular season 10th in points, meaning Furniture Row became the first single-car team to qualify for the Chase in its 10-year existence.
“I don't know that we had that vision,” said team manager Joe Garone after the Richmond race. “Maybe Kurt did with his experience, but we all filed in right behind Barney [Visser, team owner] and his lead there. Dream comes true today.”
“Well, I don't know that it's a dream come true as much as I'm kind of in awe of Kurt and Joe, the whole team, what these guys have been able to do,” added Visser. “It's been a lot of hard work. They put in a lot of hours. It's much appreciated here.”
So far this season, Busch has nine top-five and 14 top-10 finishes – more than Furniture Row had in its entire history prior to this year. In the first two Chase races, Busch has finished fourth at Chicagoland and 13th at Loudon, leaving him seventh, 40 points behind Matt Kenseth, winner of the first two Chase races. Can Kurt now stun the world and win a second championship, to create one of racing's all-time great underdog stories? Probably not…but he could get close, which would be fun to watch.
So will next year, when SHR becomes a four-car team.
“I know Kurt's résumé as well as anybody,” said his future boss Gene Haas. “I kind of like his attitude. He's passionate about what he does. He likes to win. He's not afraid to get in people's faces. I think that kind of reflects my company a little bit. I think it's a good match. He's a passionate person, and it takes a lot of passion to win these races. The fact that he runs into his friends at 200 miles an hour once in a while, has a few tough words…They all do it, so I don't really have any problems with that, either.”
So what's made the difference in Busch? Why has he grown from someone with a reputation for belligerence and anger to one who's a star again and back in the top echelons of the sport?
Simple: He grew up.
“The opportunity is about people,” Busch said. “That's what makes this so important. What I've neglected in the past is understanding the people, knowing that that makes the difference between going to Victory Lane or not.”
Stewart, meanwhile, makes the point that he, Harvick and Busch – all notorious hot heads at one time or another – have all wised up.
“It's kind of inevitable that at some point all three of us, at different stages, were going to start growing up,” said Smoke. “I don't know that all three of us have completed that process yet, but I think to a certain degree and a certain level, we've each made huge gains in that area.”
But Stewart's hedging his bets, nonetheless.
“There's going to be two really key positions that we're going to have to fill. One is a therapist for me, and the second is a therapist for the rest of the team. But it's going to be fun. Everybody is looking at this as, ‘Oh, my God, this is an atomic bomb that can get set off at any moment,' whereas I look at it the opposite way. We've all been through [conflict] to a certain degree and we don't want to get back in that mode again. So I think whether I get frustrated and those two guys calm me down or it's one of the others who gets frustrated and the two of us calm him down, I think we'll be a good support system for each other.”