Four thoughts on Kurt Busch and Stewart-Haas’ expansion

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Today, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ latest super-team was formed.

2004 Cup champion and Furniture Row Racing driver Kurt Busch was officially announced this afternoon as the fourth driver in next year’s lineup for Stewart-Haas Racing, which will boast a very intriguing roster with Busch, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick (coming in from Richard Childress Racing), and Danica Patrick.

Whether it will all work out remains to be seen. But for now, here are a few takeaways from today’s press conference in North Carolina:

1) Kurt Busch can thank SHR co-owner Gene Haas for this.

While Stewart was in the early days of recovery after breaking his right leg in a sprint car accident, Haas (pictured, right) went out on his own to pursue Busch – even though his fellow co-owner had said at New Hampshire that his team wasn’t capable of expanding to a fourth car, hence the release of Ryan Newman at season’s end.

According to SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli, Stewart wasn’t against expansion but was against trying to get it done for 2014. But Haas wanted to take the risk; he’ll fund Busch’s program out of his pocket and have his own Haas Automation company serve as Busch’s primary sponsor.

Eventually, Stewart gave Haas the green light.

“I think, you know, initially since it wasn’t Tony’s idea, he was taken aback a little bit by it,” Haas said. “But I think he saw it wasn’t a bad idea. In retrospect, it looks like it’s going to be a great idea. If we don’t win any races next year, hey, I’m going to look like an idiot.

“I take gambles, I made a decision, and I think I’m going to be proven right. I think we’re going to win a lot more races than anybody ever thought possible.”

2) SHR is confident everyone will get along.

“The Outlaw,” “Smoke,” “Happy,” and Danica – all under one roof and all having proven, emphatically at times, that they can be quite passionate about what they do.

Zipadelli joked that the team had “built a rubber room upstairs” to prepare for the potentially combustible mix of personalities, but also said that having four drivers with plenty of fire was better than trying to figure out how to motivate them.

“We’ll deal with what comes our way on a weekly basis and we’ll continue to race,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. I think what makes this unique is there’s three guys and Danica that all had their days. I think they can all help each other.

“At least that’s the theory I’m going with.”

3) Busch is older, but also seems to be wiser.

After he and Penske Racing split following the end of the 2011 season, Busch went into the wilderness, so to speak. He joined up with Phoenix Racing in 2012, but then went to Furniture Row Racing for this season – teams that don’t have as much resources to work with.

Nonetheless, Busch has given FRR the chance to earn a Chase berth with two regular season races remaining before the post-season run. And it’s clear that being part of the single-car team has given something to Busch, too.

“It’s taught me a lot about myself on how to understand disappointment better, and it’s also taught me a lot about how to help with crew members when they stumble or they trip on something, to be there for them,” he said. “So that’s why I feel like I’m in a better place mentally and spiritually as well.”

4) The Indy 500 is still on the table.

Busch, who tested an Andretti Autosport IndyCar this past May at Indianapolis, is still hoping to make a run at the Indianapolis 500 in the future, and he says that hasn’t changed despite his soon-to-be new surroundings.

“There’s certain timelines that I’ve agreed to with [IndyCar team owner] Michael Andretti if we’re still going to do the deal,” said Busch. “We’re working on things.

“I mentioned that to Tony when we got together. He said, ‘Man, if you’re going to run [the IndyCar season finale at] Fontana this year, I’m rolling with you and I’m going to be there with you.'”

As you probably know, Stewart ran three seasons in the IZOD IndyCar Series (then, the Indy Racing League) before he flipped full-time to stock car racing in 1999.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”