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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Tony Stewart & Ryan Newman Should Enjoy the Honeymoon While It Lasts

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 Racing.

Except that wasn’t about Stewart-Haas Racing. 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 SHR. 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 Stewart and 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.

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 skillset… 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 No. 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 11. 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 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 HMS, which isn’t very likely, that basically means Hendrick will still have an indisputable edge.

Stewart and 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 No. 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.

SMITH: WHAT ARE RYAN AND ROGER THINKING?

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 Nos. 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 No. 43 is 23rd in owner points, the No. 45 is 39th, while the Nos. 66 and 70 are 35th and 43rd, respectively.)

No one knows for sure how well Stewart-Haas Racing will run next year. No one knows for sure how well HMS 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 fives 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 out-duel 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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