The Frontstretch: Stewart Is Making Me Look Like An Idiot—But Lesson Learned by Kurt Smith -- Friday May 8, 2009

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Throughout the Richmond race, I was watching Ryan Newman run toward the front, lead, and contend for the win in a Stewart-Haas Chevrolet.

You know, those same Haas Chevrolets that consistently ran in the 30s as recently as last year. Those Haas cars that were as desperate to find driving talent as the driving talent sometimes was to find a Cup ride. Those Haas cars whose sponsors, once you got past Best Buy, had names like Hunt Brothers Pizza. That Haas team that had one car barely in the top 35 and the other in the weekly fight to make the field, a fight it sometimes lost.

One year ago Haas Motorsports had already reached obscurity, had an owner in jail, and certainly would have been teetering on the wrong side of bankruptcy in today’s climate. Today its co-owner/driver Tony Stewart is third in the point standings, but even Stewart is no longer a shoo-in to take the team’s first win, not after seeing Newman’s performance at Richmond. If any team should be called Phoenix Racing, it is Stewart-Haas.

I probably should have known better.

When Tony Stewart announced his leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to co-own with Gene Haas last season, like many others, this writer was more than a little surprised. Stewart had won two championships with Gibbs and was part of a No. 20 team that was a threat every race, every season. And he was going to a team that barely had one car in the top 35. It seemed more insane than Ray Evernham leaving the 24 to own his own team.

I was almost as baffled at Ryan Newman’s decision to leave Penske Racing for the apparent wilderness of a Haas team. Newman had just won the Daytona 500, and while he hadn’t been running as well as he had in the past, Penske was always showing signs of returning to form…and while no one knew at the time, it seems to be finally coming together for them this year. (Maybe it had something to do with firing Newman, as Rusty Wallace claimed was what really went down.) But even then, Penske still looked like a better bet.

Tony Stewart’s success as an owner/driver has proven many fans and journalists wrong.

Of course I wasn’t the only writer scratching his head at the move. I was initially going to go through articles from last year from writers who predicted that Stewart and Newman would run mid-pack at best for at least a couple of seasons, but I decided that I alone would take the fall for what was said in Happy Hour. But it certainly wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that such predictions were the ongoing “conventional wisdom” at the time. Most everyone, including me, figured the team would improve, but no one thought it would happen this quickly and this dramatically.

To put into perspective just how dramatic that improvement has been, consider that Stewart has scored three top 5s in nine races this season. He has finished lower than 17th only twice, 17th once, and no worse than eighth in the other six races of 2009. The 70 car, whose owner points the 14 took, had a best finish of 16th in 30 races in 2008—one of just three top 20s. Ryan Newman has scored three top 10s in nine races with the former 66 car, which scored three top 15 finishes all of last year—its only top 10 at Talladega, where everyone has a shot at a top 10 on a given week.

It’s difficult to believe it’s the same team.

Think of all the other recent mergers and team reorganizations—Earnhardt-Ganassi, the Roush-Yates engine program, the Childress-DEI engine program, or the newly formed Gillett Evernham/Petty team of Richard Petty Motorsports—none of them have come close to showing improvement on this scale. In fact, none have come close to showing improvement on any scale, unless you think Roush Fenway has benefited from their association with Yates, which is a fair argument.

Let this be a lesson to you the faithful Frontstretch readers. We commentators might know a tiny bit about racing, but we still can’t select fantasy teams for squat. Remember that when you’re watching season previews for any sport.

What should I have known? That Tony Stewart is a determined competitor. That he knows, after so many years, who the good people in this business are. And more than anything else, it was foolish to forget that the guy is one of the best ever to get behind the wheel of a stock car. That one should have been obvious. I’ve watched the guy outdrive his opponents for years.

By the way, one thing I didn’t consider was Stewart-Haas being just a two car operation. I did say at one time that having to get their engines at Hendrick meant that they weren’t employing the best people on their own. But it never dawned on me to think that an organization would have trouble competing with likes of Hendrick and Roush Fenway running just two cars. Nor should it have, really.

Tony Stewart, in addition to having proven many pundits wrong in a hurry, is also showing the racing world that a team doesn’t need 10 cars to be competitive on the racetrack. Right now Tony Stewart is higher in the points standings than every driver from Roush Fenway, Joe Gibbs and Richard Childress. Only one Hendrick driver is outperforming him. And Tony’s stablemate is ahead of all but one Roush Fenway driver.

It could be, and has been said, that the two SHM teams are really just two more Hendrick teams, since Hendrick supplies engines and tech support to them. But that was the case last year, too, and few people talked about Hendrick having six teams when Johnny Sauter didn’t make the field. Getting engines and/or chassis from top teams helps, but ultimately its importance to a team’s success is probably overstated. It didn’t help Petty Enterprises much to get their stuff from Evernham. Roush Fenway and Yates are using the same engines to completely different levels of success.

Even using top equipment from successful teams, you still need a driver that can navigate through a three wide tangle, a crew chief that can make smart adjustments and put together a strategy, and a crew that performs on pit road. Pit road miscues especially have cost more than a couple of drivers wins this year…and flawless pit stops helped give Jeff Gordon a victory.

Explaining all this brings one to reality. It’s much easier to describe what has happened that to speculate what will happen. Perhaps that permanent and uncharacteristic excrement—eating grin on Tony Stewart’s face this season stems from proving much of the motorsports press wrong.

But all the same, I should learn from my mistakes: never underestimate a competitor, give some credit to the driver for a team’s success, and most of all, you’re only as good or as bad as tomorrow. Crow tastes bad, but sometimes it’s good for the digestion.

So well done Tony. And in the future I’m going to try easier predictions until I get the hang of it.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • It was revealed that Mark Martin will run yet another season, on the same day that ESPN learned that Brett Favre is talking to the Vikings. Far be it for me to rush either of these first class and ageless gentlemen out of their respective sports, but they ought to at least give all of the retirement gifts back.
  • David Reutimann has fallen out of the top 12, having unfortunately done all he could to get the Aaron’s car on television to little avail. My instinct tells me he’s probably out for good this season, but I have just demonstrably proven that I can be very wrong.
  • Jeff Gordon has been complaining of back pain, so I thought I could give him some advice. Don’t play video games. Seriously. I discovered that when I was playing video games I would lean forward in my chair for extended periods of time, and the next day, wham. Just a thought.
  • I unfortunately will have to find a way to record the Darlington race, one of my favorite races of the season. My loving wife managed to pull me away from a race the only way she knows how…with the Christmas gift of tickets to a game at the new Citi Field in Queens. Full review upon request.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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Bill B
05/08/2009 07:07 AM

I too am very surprised to see how well SHR. I figured the best case scenario was that it would take them at least half the season to be running competitively. While a lot has changed with the team since last year the only conclusion that I can reach is that the previous drivers, Sauter, Riggs, etc, just aren’t that good. This may be the best case ever as to how important the driver is in the old debate “is it the driver or the car?’.

05/08/2009 09:13 AM

I think the “is it the driver or the car” question has been answered in part by the success of SHR and the lack of success of Dale Jr. at HMS.

05/08/2009 09:40 AM

Don’t forget that Tony spent 10 years learning lessons from Joe Gibbs on how to run a successful operation: Hire the right people and stay out of their way. Tony’s done all that this year.

Tony hired the entire #8 pit crew for Ryan’s team. He brought in a Hendrick engineer to be his crew chief, and he hired one of the best managers in the business (Hutchins) to run the show. Not to mention leveraging Newman’s engineering expertise.

Gibbs, Gibson, Grubb, Hutchins, and Newman. All big reasons why SHR is red hat. And Tony put them all together.

05/08/2009 09:42 AM

SHR is doing some impressive things, but let’s not forget when Stewart is doing well things are wonderful, but when things don’t go so well he is a guy you don’t want to be around, as we’ve seen in the past.So as long as SHR continues to have top 15 finishes things will be good, but if there is a string of bad luck look out. Tony will not stay calm if questioned as to what is wrong with the team.

Doug Scholl
05/08/2009 10:49 AM

While I’m surprised that both cars are in 3rd and 10th respectively, I’m not surprised that there was marked improvement. I would say I’m more surprised at the #33 Cheerios. As a “new” team that was supposed to get RCR leftovers, they have proven without a doubt the skill and talent that Clint has as a driver and a communicator of what his car is doing and what it needs.

John Potts
05/08/2009 10:59 AM

I hope the crow was good, Kurt. From personal experience, a lot of salt and ketchup help. I didn’t make a public prediction, but I’m not surprised. Then again, I had an edge. I had watched Tony from his TQ days and known him as a friend in his USAC days. It was apparent even then that this kid was something special.

05/08/2009 11:20 AM

Good article Kurt, but I have to agree with Dan from above. Stewart has shown us what a brand new team can do, and for that, he deserves all sorts of pats-on-the-back. But when Lady Luck turns against him, and he gets caught up in a couple of wrecks or has an unfortunate pit stop or two during a race, we’re going to see the real Tony Stewart emerge, and we all know that’s not a pretty sight! And God forbid if it’s his own driving that causes him to finish in the top 30 (or worse). If that’s the case, who will he blame then????

05/08/2009 11:47 AM

The 14 team has had bad pit stops alot this season. At least 1 a race. And everytime that has happend Tony has gotton on the scanner and said “it’s okay guys. Just take your time and be consistent and I’ll get these spots back.” And remember Daytona?? Talk about having bad luck and while he ranted about Goodyear he was still pretty calm and didn’t blow up. As for how well SHR is doing this year. It doesn’t surprise me one bit. I predicated that Tony would make the Chase and that Ryan would be right there fighting to get in. After following Tony for all these years I have learned that he has been successful at everything he has done and that things just always seem to work out for him.

05/08/2009 12:07 PM

For anyone who’s interested, here are the staff predictions that were made at the beginning of the season. I had to look because I was pretty sure I had chosen Tony to make the chase, but I wasn’t so sure about Ryan Newman. It’s interesting to look back even at this point in the season and see who everyone chose. Would you believe that actually seven of the writers chose Tony to make the chase and only one picked Newman?

Joe W.
05/08/2009 01:02 PM

Tony Stewart’s success is not suprising. He is this good. He is also smart enough to bring in the right people. The tools were there last year. The right people were not. As has been mentioned Tony brought in crew chiefs and engineers that were not with Haas last year. I am not suprised by Newman either. He was being held back by inferior equipment at Penske. The new Dodge engine has helped alliviate that situation there, but only Kurk Busch is taking advantage of it by being competative. Newman is much better off where he is. I bet Scott Riggs would have been in the top 15 in points with this team this year too, if he had gotten the chance. Tony Stewart has made that kind of difference. He knows how to run a business and he sure knows how to drive a racecar.

05/08/2009 02:22 PM

The ONLY reason Stewart is having success is because his team is an extension of Hendrick’s. The chassis, engines, engineering support, and everything else is ALL Hendrick. It’s very obvious that Stewart and Newman are great drivers, but without the equipment they drive, they would be toiling mid pack or worse. Stewart made the right call partnering with Hendrick as he knew that would get him up front fast, but until they break away and do their own engine program and chassis program, they won’t win a title.

I can’t think of any team in the last 20-30 years that has won a title with leased engines and chassis. The guys running the leased stuff never get the very best stuff in the arsenal.

Kevin in SoCal
05/08/2009 03:45 PM

Newman has not made the Chase in two or three years now. Why would anyone have picked him to make it this year, driving for a new team? Especially after the first four races, he and Mark Martin were in the 30’s in points. Since that time, both of them have set the pace and made huge strides up the standings.

05/08/2009 05:19 PM

Well Kevin since I’m the one that picked Newman to make the Chase, I’ll hop in and answer your question. I picked Newman to make the chase simply because he joined Stewart. I felt like Stewart being back in a Chevy would be great, and his team all around would benefit. And maybe part of it was just me being hopeful of Tony Stewart succeeding as an owner/driver. You can call me crazy when we get back to Richmond in September if Newman doesn’t end up making the Chase.

05/09/2009 01:36 PM

Hey Tony, HAAS was mid pack at best last year. They had all the Hendrick conections for years and have nothing to show for it. So I don’t buy that the ONLY raeson why Tony is doing so well is because of having HMS support. If that was the case then Jr would be right up there with the rest of the HMS crew.

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