The Frontstretch: Stewart And Newman Should Enjoy The Honeymoon While It Lasts by Kurt Smith -- Friday August 22, 2008

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A two car team with established veteran drivers behind the wheel, quite a few wins between them, one a former Cup champion. Sharing engines and chassis with one of the top outfits in the business. Luring away a capable mechanic from Hendrick Motorsports, a fellow who performed more than adequately sitting in as a crew chief during the full-time crew chief’s suspension. And the support of a couple of big name sponsors.

It seems as though the future is bright for Stewart-Haas Motorsports.

Except that wasn’t about Stewart-Haas Motorsports. That is the recent business model for Petty Enterprises.

Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman were all smiles at the press conference announcing Newman’s signing with SHM. They were cracking jokes and were optimistic about the future of their new team, as most athletes are before they begin a new chapter. And that’s fine. That’s what they’re supposed to do.

But soon the party will be over and the reality will set in that Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman have committed their careers and their lives over the next few years to a very mediocre (by Sprint Cup standards) racing team who is currently scraping for occasional Top 20 finishes and whose other co-owner is in jail.

People expected Michael Waltrip Racing to do well right out of the box and even win a race or two in 2007. So far the team is still not even close to a win. There are still some who think Petty Enterprises may turn the corner soon, and no one should argue with such optimism. But let’s face it, Petty is having a rough go of it these days. Kyle Petty and Michael Waltrip are both very aware that team ownership in NASCAR is tough business, and if those two don’t know NASCAR racing inside and out, they are a phone call away from a relative who does. If that can’t convince you, you can always ask Teresa, Chip or Roger. Owning a Cup team is exacting, extremely demanding and expensive, and that’s when things are going well. Richard Childress is one of the most successful team owners ever, and his team has a grand total of one win this year.

Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman may well be among the best drivers piloting Cup cars today, but it will take much more than talented drivers to make Stewart-Haas Motorsports successful.

Sometimes it’s not easy to understand why people would leave what appears to be a great gig for a “new challenge”. Think of John Lennon. All he had to do was separate himself from Yoko for a second to realize how good he had it with the Beatles and never would again. Or an even better example—Michael Jordan retiring from a sport he revolutionized to take up a sport that required an entirely different skill set…one that he obviously lacked. Thank God the man came to his senses in time to win three more NBA rings.

It was a shame that Ray Evernham left a 24 team that had potential to set many more records and leave an even more indelible mark on the sport than it already had. He’s not a terrible team owner and his team is certainly not to be dismissed, but he was a better crew chief.

Great athletes don’t often become great managers. Bobby Clarke was my hockey hero when I was a kid, but I’ve never idolized him for his general manager skills. I certainly wouldn’t run full speed across a parking lot to get his autograph for it, like I once did when I was eleven. He ruled the world as Captain of the Flyers’ Stanley Cup teams, but I’ll never forget his trading Brad McCrimmon.

Such career changes are clearly driven by a competitive spirit, and there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s bold, certainly, to give up something one excels at for something uncertain where success is not guaranteed. People famous for high achievement in any arena don’t like to think that they can’t be just as successful in another vocation. But few superstars in any sport have made the switch to a different profession, unless you count the occasional former athlete who becomes a decent broadcaster. Even that is rare. He was a great racecar driver, but Darrell Waltrip is never going to take Mike Joy’s job.

Stewart has promised to bring the best people on board to turn around a race team that clearly needs turning around. But how easy is that going to be? It’s one thing to get the best people for your World of Outlaws teams when you’re Tony Stewart, but that’s not going to be as much of an advantage when trying to hire people that currently build equipment for Jimmie Johnson. The best fabricators, crew members, and engine builders are probably more likely to stay where they are. Stewart-Haas can’t afford to give everyone a better offer. It may be a victory if they land Darian Grubb as a crew chief, but Grubb isn’t Chad Knaus, just like Jeff Meendering isn’t Steve Letarte. If Stewart hires away all of the second-best people from Hendrick Motorsports, which isn’t very likely, that basically means Hendrick will still have an indisputable edge.

Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman may well be among the best drivers piloting Cup cars today. But so were Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, and Cale Yarborough in their day. A very large part of what made those drivers great was the equipment underneath them. The driver may get most of the glory and accolades, but racing is a team sport to the end. That’s why smart drivers thank their teams and crews up and down after winning a race. The best driver in the world can’t win without decent stuff, as all of the greats have proven at some point in their careers. Jeff Gordon hardly looks like a four-time championship driver this season. Stewart and Newman, replacing Scott Riggs and whoever is in the 70 this week, aren’t going to start winning races simply on driver ability. They aren’t that good. Look at the two drivers’ performance this year—one win between them in far superior equipment.

Big name sponsorship and manufacturer backing hasn’t helped Michael Waltrip Racing very much. One wonders if Office Depot and Old Spice will tolerate the kind of performance from the 14 and 39 that we’re currently seeing at MWR for as long as NAPA and UPS have been. And that’s not even to suggest that Chevrolet is going to be throwing all kind of resources their way, at a time when GM is strongly suggesting that they will be pulling a lot of money out of NASCAR.

It’s going to take more than two great drivers who share a love for fishing, major sponsors, and some stars and engines from other teams to make Stewart-Haas competitive. Turning it around is going to require a restructuring. It’s going to be very difficult and will take a while.

Petty Enterprises isn’t where it is because of any lack of trying. Lots of racing people believe it’s because Petty is a smaller outfit that can’t compete with the bigger teams, which is probably partly true. If that’s the case, expect essentially the same results from Stewart-Haas. That’s being optimistic—Petty is still outrunning Haas at the moment. (The 43 is 23rd in owner points, the 45 is 39th, while the 66 and 70 are 35th and 43rd, respectively.)

No one knows for sure how well Stewart-Haas Motorsports will run next year. No one knows for sure how well Hendrick Motorsports will run next year. But it would be a big surprise to see a team that currently has two cars fighting to stay in the Top 35, even with only 44 cars on the track each week, running competitively and landing Top 5s and Top 10s right out of the gate, when essentially the biggest change in the team is who drives the cars. Tony Stewart is a great racecar driver. He could easily outduel Joe Gibbs or Rick Hendrick on a racetrack. Ownership—getting the best people and getting the most out of them, at which Gibbs and Hendrick excel—is a whole different ballgame, and driving skill doesn’t mean a heck of a lot sitting behind the owner’s desk.

If either car makes the Chase in 2009, I’ll gladly do a press conference and eat my words congratulating them. But don’t bet the kids on it.

Kurt’s Shorts – Brist-le

  • I will be away this week, starting as you read this, so I am not sure if I will be able to watch the coming race at the new, kinder and gentler Bristol Motor Speedway. I’m confident I won’t be missing any memorable moments. Politeness rules the day at Bristol now with playoffs on the horizon. Now that’s a damn shame.
  • If Denny Hamlin makes a costly mistake on the track this week, I’d like to see ESPN interview one of his crew members.
  • I may do a column on this down the road, but does NASCAR have a Prodigal Son attitude towards California and Atlanta? These are probably NASCAR’s two most underperforming tracks as far as attendance right now, and they’ve been given two of the most desirable dates on the schedule. Wish that NASCAR shared the same desire to prop up the Lady in Black or the Rock.
  • The recent Joe Gibbs penalties are the first time I can remember that a team was convicted of pretending to be slower. As if Joey Logano hasn’t been hyped enough already.

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big alice
08/22/2008 01:33 AM
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I’ll never understand all the comparing SHR to Waltrip or Petty or Robby.

Waltrip most likely would have NEVER won even a single race if not for Dale Sr.

Kyle never had a great record even in his prime.

Robby was only good on road tracks even when in RCR equiptment.

I’m STILL waiting for a relative comparison as to why Stewart-Haas won’t do well. I don’t think the Haas teams are all that bad, when you think about it, ALL the drivers they have ever used, have done pretty much what they did BEFORE they got to Haas. So what would make you think it ISN’T the drivers Haas has had???

Douglas
08/22/2008 06:47 AM
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What your saying, in a “nutshell”, is what we have known all along under the current NA$CAR rules, (such as they are)!

The only “successful” teams are those with BIG pockets, and lots of cars!

So a driver, or drivers in this case, Stewart & Newman, have simple choices, climb on board a big bucks team and hope they provide you a good car (which has not happened in Newman’s case), or decide to go it alone and take your chances with a smaller team!

Good choices for Stewart & Newman! I wish them the best!

Johnboy60
08/22/2008 09:07 AM
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It is apparent from this article that someone doesn’t like either Newman or Stewart, or both. Kinda self serving if you ask me!

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
08/22/2008 09:17 AM
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big alice, as far as a relative comparison, I started the article with it.

I’m not saying that the driver doesn’t mean anything. I’m saying that a great driver is still not going to take a 30th place car to victory lane immediately.

As far as the drivers at Haas, Jeremy Mayfield won two races for Evernham and three for Penske, the team Ryan is leaving to join Haas. It’s fair to say he didn’t come close to that in the 70 car. Scott Riggs didn’t do much better in an Evernham car than in a Haas machine, but it remains to be seen who can make the 10 car competitive.

I notice that you didn’t mention Bobby Labonte either…he did win a championship with JGR, which he hasn’t been in contention to do at Petty.

Johnboy60, you’ll have to take my word for it that I have nothing against Stewart or Newman. In fact I like both of them and think they’re both great drivers. Believe me, if I wanted to be self-serving and tear any driver apart in this forum I could.

mr meehoff
08/22/2008 09:40 AM
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I think you are right on Kurt. We always hear about chemistry from the owners and teams and most fans buy into that until it involves their driver. Now they lessen the importance of chemistry in the equation because they don’t like the answer. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them could sneak in a win next year but I would think building up to championship caliber will be at least a three year plan.
I think comparing him to MWR is a bit of a stretch though. That company was built from scratch. At least the infrastructure is already in place at Haas. Plus, no offense to MW fans, Michael is an average driver at best. If he had came into this sport in 2005 instead of 198? he’d already be gone. He is a guy who was in the right place at the right time and through hard work has made a decent career with his talent limitations.

Rob B.
08/22/2008 09:27 PM
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Check your facts better buddy, RCR has two wins this year. Burton won the Bristol spring race and Bowyer won the Richmond spring race. Your lack of knowledge really hurts your credibility.

Marley
08/22/2008 11:15 PM
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Didn’t Labonte finish 24th in points in 2005, his last year at JGR? Labonte is currently doing about what he did his last years at JGR.

A driver can make a huge difference. The #11 was not a top 35 team until they put Hamlin in the car.

Unlike MWR, the Stewart-Haas Team has been in existance for a while. IMO, some extra sponsorship money, several additional key employees, and two very talented drivers will go a long way in making the team competitive in 2009.

FunkyD
08/23/2008 11:17 AM
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Mikey had only his part-time Busc^H^H^H^H Nationwide gig as an owner prior to starting a brand-new 3-car team from scratch.

Tony is taking over an existing team that has shown some potential and has big $ behind it. Tony knows what it takes to build a championship team, having done so in WOO and USAC already. He has also been thorougly schooled in the Joe Gibbs Way.

While none of this means he will be successful, he still has much better odds than Petty or Mikey.

Still, he may just regret leaving the 20 team. Ask DW about whether he should’ve stayed with Junior Johnson.

Ed
08/23/2008 03:54 PM
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Since none of us know what the future holds, there’s little sense in trying to predict it. Only time will tell. My guess is that the team will do well.

Bill B
08/25/2008 12:34 PM
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….eventually.

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