NASCAR's New Fab Four
Stewart-Haas Racing Boasts Four of NASCAR's Brightest Stars
In 2008, when Tony Stewart informed the world of his intentions to become a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner/driver, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
Winning driver/owner combos in the sport's premier league were a thing of the past. These days, a frenetic race schedule, coupled with a truckload of sponsor obligations, endorsement commitments, testing and more, give a driver little time for endeavors outside of driving the car. Adding the title of owner is a daunting proposition for most people.
Stewart, though, isn't most people. Having already been a team (World of Outlaws and USAC) and track owner (Eldora), he felt certain he was more than up to the challenge when he partnered with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing.
And as they say, the rest is history.
In 2011, Stewart became the first owner/driver to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship (his third) since Alan Kulwicki did so in 1992. After starting out as a two-car operation, Stewart-Haas now fields fours cars, boasting an impressive lineup that includes former Cup champion Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and former IndyCar sensation Danica Patrick, one of NASCAR's most popular drivers.
That foursome represents four Sprint Cup championships, 98 Sprint Cup race wins (as of late April) - Stewart has 48 and both Harvick and Busch have 25 each - and nearly half a century of experience (Stewart 16 years, Busch 15, Harvick 14 and Patrick three).
If you were looking to hang a nickname on Stewart's posse, the Fantastic Four or the Fab Four could easily fit. Stewart, however, doesn't really care what they're called - but he does want the team to be considered one of NASCAR's premier organizations.
"What's it like being an owner," repeats Stewart after the question is posed, "I love it. It's fun to watch, especially when you go back to the shop. You're proud of what you've been part of building. It's four of us together that really get along and I think that's going to make us a potent combination each week. To have the driver lineup we have now, I'm real excited about it.
"It's nice to have my good buddy Kevin back and Kurt and I are becoming good friends. And Danica and I have a great relationship, too. The four of us together really get along and really understand each other and I think that's going to make us a potent combination."
While some may question how Stewart can focus on driving his own car while worrying about three others, he says how he manaages it is pretty simple.
"When I'm driving, it's 100 percent about being a driver and Greg Zipadelli and Gene (Haas) do a great job of taking on those ownership duties so I can focus," he said. "(The owner part) depends on what the week's like. Depends on what Sunday was like the week before. But for the most part, everybody has their role and everybody's got their job they have to do. We have people in place, like Greg, Matt Borland and Brett Frood. We've got a really good group of people at SHR that can handle it."
Harvick, a longtime friend of Stewart's, came on board this year, along with Busch. Having spent his entire Cup career at Richard Childress Racing, Harvick's move made for a difficult 2013 after making his announcement early in the season.
"I think last year was tough because of the situation of everybody knowing I was going to a new team," he said. "And then you're looking forward to trying to build a team for the year after so this year has definitely been a lot easier and less stressful than last year.
"Now I'm only concentrating on one job - and knowing everybody around you is focused on the same goal is much easier on your mind and body."
The lack of stress has certainly been evident this year as Harvick picked up two wins through the first eight races.
As to how Harvick likes driving for Stewart, he says he doesn't really focus too much on that aspect of the relationship.
"I don't really look at Tony as my boss," he said. "When we put this together, I don't think we talked about it but maybe one time - very briefly. Everybody else put the pieces together so he could focus on his job and I could focus on my job and do the things we needed to do on the race track.
"To me, it's very important to have Tony as a teammate. It's one of the reasons that I came to SHR. He's won three championships. To have him lean on me and to have him push me… that's why."
It's no secret that Harvick feels being with Stewart gives him his best chance yet to win a championship.
"This team has been put together, piece by piece, and every nut and bolt and every person on the team has been hand-picked and put together to have the best chemistry and have the most experienced guys with the most enthusiasm that want to go out and race for wins. And hopefully compete for championships.
"That's why I came here, to be competitive and to win races and to hopefully race for a championship."
Busch, who snagged his championship in just his fifth year of Cup competition in 2004 while racing for Jack Roush, was searching for stability before joining Stewart-Haas for the 2014 season.
The 35-year-old driver left Roush after the 2005 season and joined Penske Racing. After six years with Penske, where he won 16 Cup races, Busch and the team parted ways after what was a tough year for the often volatile 35-year-old driver in 2011.
After struggling the next two years at Furniture Row Racing and Phoenix Racing, Busch landed at Stewart-Haas after Gene Haas hired him to drive the organization's fourth car while Stewart was out last fall recovering from a broken leg.
"I got hurt Aug. 5 in Iowa and around that time is when Gene first started having conversations with Kurt," said Stewart. "He did a great job seeing that opportunity and putting that deal together with Kurt at the right time. It was kind of neat because I was kind of off on the side just trying to get healed up and Gene was really being active with the owner role, so I was pretty proud of him."
Like Harvick, Busch found early success with his new team, winning at Martinsville. For him, being part of Stewart-Haas has been a rebirth of sorts.
"Stewart-Haas is great, with four primary teams in this series to go against all the big dogs, it's neat to try to win in numbers," he said. "But when you have a guy like Tony Stewart, as a racer and as an owner, information channels so quickly to the top level that there's nothing you're going to be behind on because he sees it as a driver and an owner at the same time.
"Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and our team, we're doing our part to add to this. As a whole, I've never seen a team work together better as a group, then go out on Sundays and race individually."
Patrick, who joined forces with Stewart-Haas three years ago, says Stewart has been very instrumental in her making big strides on the race track. Last year, after his accident, she said the void on the track was obvious.
"It was a downer last year to lose him as a leader in the car," she said. "He still came around virtually every weekend and I was lucky enough to have him on my radio a couple of times to give me advice, but it's much better to have him in the car. He's a great leader, a lot of fun and people really like working for him."
All four drivers are very outspoken and Patrick says that's one of the greatest attributes of the organization.
"I think it's always good when you're with drivers that are honest and tell it like it is, and ask for what they want," she said.
Busch agrees, saying he appreciates the fact that each of the drivers can always speak their mind.
"It's cool to sit down in the driver debriefing and everybody is boom, right there with their opinion," said Busch. "Nobody is holding back or sugar-coating things or trying to play the politically correct terminology. We're just ourselves and that's key."
Harvick echoes his teammates' comments about being open and honest.
"The good thing is that conversation is healthy and I think everybody's opinions matter and a question that's not asked is a bad deal," he said. "I don't think anybody in this deal is afraid to speak their mind. Everybody knows what they want in their race cars for the most part and I believe that when we sit in competition meetings and talk that things progress. And that's really what this sport is all about, to progress the sport and the competition. Hopefully we can keep doing that and stay ahead of the curve."
And ultimately win more races - and championships.
"What we're missing is championships," said Patrick. "We're hungry for it and we've got three guys capable of getting it and the race teams are poised to go after it. We're doing everything we can to bring a championship trophy to Tony, our sponsors and to us here at Stewart-Haas Racing. Our people are focused on that."
That's something Stewart knows about himself, and about his drivers.
"They're all extremely passionate about what they do and they work harder than most people I know at trying to win races," he said.
With a trio of championships to his credit, which would the 43-year-old Stewart rather see: himself win number four, Busch win his second title or Harvick or Patrick nail down their first crown?
"I don't want to have to pick," he said. "I want to be in a scenario where I can win a championship again as a driver and if we can't, then I hope we can win it with somebody else.
"The thing we do every week is that we make sure we give all four drivers the same opportunity to be successful and if we can't win another (championship) as a driver, then we want one of our teams to be successful. It's not where we put ourselves above anybody else. All four of us are in the same cars every weekend, so we make sure everybody's got the same opportunity."