When Kurt Busch was hired by Gene Haas, his directive was clear: win, and more specifically, be the guy to finally place the Haas Automation-sponsored Chevrolet SS of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in victory lane.
Busch delivered on that mission with an exclamation point Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, holding off six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and eight-time Martinsville race winner Jimmie Johnson to win the STP 500 and snap an 83-race winless streak that dated back to Oct. 2, 2011 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
“I didn’t know if we would be able to do it,” said Busch, who led three times for 23 laps. “I’ve been on this journey for a while. Every time you come to Martinsville you draw a line through it – like there is no way I’ll be able to challenge those Hendrick guys or even challenge for a top-10. Stewart-Haas Racing gave me a team to do it. It’s a dream come true to have Gene Haas call you and tell you that he wants you to drive his racecar and he wants to go for trophies and wins. It’s an unbelievable feeling to deliver for Gene Haas and everyone at Haas Automation.”
Victory lane seemed an unlikely destination for the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet in the early going of Sunday’s 500-lap race around the rough-and-tumble .526-mile oval. Busch had a fast racecar, but a pit road incident came close to ruining the day for the No. 41 team. Busch’s Chevy sustained damage after drivers Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski collided during a round of yellow-flag pit stops. After an extra trip to pit road for repairs, Busch restarted the race deep in the field in 38th place.
Busch went to work and steadily picked up positions on the track, overcoming a few handling issues as the team continued to massage the car’s handling with slight adjustments as the race progressed. The combination of smart pit work and the driver’s on-track savvy served the Haas Automation team well, and Busch took the lead for the first time on lap 243. Although he would surrender the lead a lap later, he had delivered the message that the No. 41 Haas Automation team was a contender.
As the race drew to a close it became clear the race would be decided between Busch and Johnson. The two traded the lead a handful of times during the last 30 laps, with Busch taking the lead for good on lap 490. Johnson made a bold move out of turn four on the final lap but was unable to overtake Busch.
“It was a battle,” Busch said of staving off Johnson for the win. “The No. 48 car is king here. I never knew we would have a shot at beating Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville. I always drew a line through this track because I was never good here. I battled for 15th all the time. So what better way to bring the Haas Automation Chevy into victory lane than beating Jimmie Johnson?”
The win is the first for Haas Automation as a primary sponsor in the Sprint Cup Series. Haas Automation has served as a primary sponsor in the Sprint Cup Series for 11 different drivers and 114 races since 2002. Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world, is owned by Gene Haas, who co-owns SHR with three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.
“Obviously it feels good,” said Haas after the win. “Basically there were a lot of naysayers and doubters out there about Stewart-Haas Racing. Tony (Stewart) having his injury last year and it looked like we were all washed up and out of business. It just goes to show you that there is a team behind everybody. 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.
“The challenges are great, and that’s what makes me feel good, that we could overcome our adversaries. You feel really good when you’re racing hard against people that don’t give you an inch, and then you can actually beat them. I feel really good about that. I feel great about Tony Stewart. He certainly has taken the team to a certain level. Now it’s kind of like we’re both working together, and I think we make a good team to put a winning race team together. We have two drivers that have won early in the season, so the choices that we made worked. When we have great people behind the teams and the cars, we’ve got Chevy as our partner and lots of sponsors to go with it.”
The victory was Busch’s 25th in 477 career Sprint Cup starts and his second at Martinsville. It was also the 21st point-paying Sprint Cup win for SHR since its inception in 2009, and the organization’s second this season. Most importantly, the win punched Busch’s ticket for the 16-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.