By Rick Minter
California businessman Gene Haas has been fielding cars in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series since 2002, when Jack Sprague drove his car to a 35th-place finish at Kansas Speedway. But it wasn’t until this past Sunday at Martinsville Speedway that a car primarily sponsored by his Haas Automation company went to Victory Lane.
Kurt Busch, the driver Haas hired last year to be the fourth driver at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team Haas co-owns with driver Tony Stewart, delivered the milestone win in dramatic fashion. He overcame an early race skirmish with Brad Keselowski that could have seen him knocked out of the race, then outdueled Jimmie Johnson — a Martinsville master — down the stretch to seal the victory.
It was Busch’s first win since October 2011, when he drove a Roger Penske-owned car to victory at Dover International Speedway. And he becomes the sixth different winner in the first six races this season.
The Victory Lane appearance by Haas Automation has been surprisingly long in coming, given the position that company holds in the machinery world. Haas, as a sole car owner, ran 284 races without a win, but now has 21 since Stewart joined his team as a co-owner. But none of the earlier 20 came in races in which Haas Automation was the primary sponsor.
Haas’ company is the nation’s largest machine tool manufacturer and specializes in computer numerical control (CNC) technology. CNC machines are computer-controlled devices that do everything from cutting out precision parts for race cars to slicing up top-of-the-line kitchen tiles. They replace earlier technology in which machine tools are controlled manually with hand wheels and levers.
Haas, speaking on a teleconference with reporters after the race in Martinsville, said he liked what he saw in the performances of his driver and of Johnson.
“I think Jimmie was a real gentleman about racing [Busch] cleanly and not trying to push him out of the way,” Haas said. “I think Kurt and Jimmie both did that.
“Ultimately, they didn’t do what they typically do at the end of those races, where they have multiple passes and all that stuff, so those two guys did really well. I think we just came out on top of that. Any other day, I think Jimmie would have come out on top.
“I was just really impressed with that, and the great season, to finally win a race with Haas Automation on the hood.
“It couldn’t have been better. … Well, it could, if I could have been there.”
The win also validated Haas’ decision to hire Busch, who had been considered “damaged goods” in NASCAR after being released by Penske, in large part because of his behavior off the track, which included tirades against several reporters, including the highly respected Dr. Jerry Punch. And he said it was a sign that the team is on the rebound from its troubles of a year ago, when Stewart was unable to compete because of a broken leg and the team’s overall performance tailed off.
“There were a lot of naysayers and doubters out there about Stewart-Haas Racing,” Haas said. “With Tony (Stewart) having his injury last year, 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 backup plan. We are still going forward.
“Racing is tough. Every time you win, you typically lose three times. It’s a very difficult sport, and it’s always great to win.”
Haas also said he was glad to see that Busch was able to put aside the early spat with Keselowski and go on to victory.
“As far as Kurt Busch handling it, I think he did a great job, and we have obviously found a solution for Kurt Busch,” he said. “When he is in Winner’s Circle, he doesn’t [complain] about anything, so that is where we need to keep him.”
Busch’s victory came after a slow start to the season. He didn’t score his first top-20 finish until placing third in the Auto Club 400 the week prior to Martinsville. And the team is led by a rookie crew chief, Daniel Knost, who got his first Cup victory on home turf, as he’s a Virginia native.
“A win like [Sunday’s] is a great step forward,” Busch said. “I don’t want it to camouflage any of the work, though, that we still have to do to make our car stronger and to be more competitive week in and week out.
“But don’t think that I’m not going to enjoy this for one moment.”