When Tony Stewart signed on the dotted line in July 2008 to assume 50% ownership in what was the struggling Haas CNC Racing outfit, there were plenty of people lining up to tell the irascible Columbus, Ind. native that he was making a colossal mistake.
That it was a great deal financially speaking was the one thing that couldn’t be argued; Stewart didn’t have to pay so much as $1 for a half-stake in the two-car outfit. But all numbers aside, the real issue was that Haas CNC Racing had hardly set the racing world alight in its first six years of operating. Indeed, a driver who’d spent the last decade defined by stock car success had purchased a team seemingly destined to fail.
Having started life in 2002 as a research and development car for the mighty megalith that is Hendrick Motorsports, Haas CNC drivers snagged just 14 top-10 runs in 284 attempts in the Cup Series, with Johnny Sauter’s fifth-place effort at Richmond in September 2007 the highest-ever finish for the fledgling team. So, why on earth would Stewart – with two championships, 33 race wins, 129 top fives, 207 top 10s and an almost uninterrupted history of success at the Sprint Cup level – want to leave the safety of the No. 20 car and Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 glorious years? Especially when you consider that the team he drives for is the car that finished 43rd in owner points in 2008?
Well, turns out Stewart seemed to know something the rest of us didn’t, right?
Let’s take a look at his season so far. Smoke recorded his first top 10 at Daytona – despite his and Ryan Newman’s efforts to wreck as many cars as possible – with an eighth-place effort in the 500. Now Daytona, a restrictor-plate track, is far from a reliable guide to the season. But when Stewart duplicated his eighth-place finish in Fontana the following Sunday, signs were there that maybe, just maybe, Stewart-Haas Racing could be a contender for a Chase berth. 26th in Vegas, Stewart’s lowest finish to date, tempered the optimism a smidgeon; but another eighth-place effort at Atlanta gave him three top-10 runs in his first four races – a tremendous start by whichever measure you want to use. A 17th-place run at Bristol was followed by his highest finish to date at Martinsville (third) and backed up by another strong run at Texas Motor Speedway, where the No. 14 car led 16 laps on the way to a very respectable fourth place.
To say such a start was unexpected is fast becoming an understatement of the year. Even if you told Stewart three months ago he would lead laps in three races (Daytona, Fontana, and Texas) and have two top fives and three other top-10 finishes by the second off week, he’d have pretty much bitten your hand off. So, how has Tony managed such a good start? Well, as you might expect, there are a number of good reasons; and as always in NASCAR, it starts with the people.
Hiring Bobby Hutchens, a DEI veteran, as SHR’s Director of Competition was both inspired and paid major dividends as the team reorganized under a major shift of personnel. Even Tony noted at the time that “Bobby brings a ton of technical and management experience to SHR.” It’s that level of experience that the “new” team needed in order to operate effectively. The other crucial hire for Stewart was crew chief Darian Grubb from Hendrick Motorsports, where he had been temporary crew chief for Jimmie Johnson – winning the Daytona 500 when NASCAR’s Doctor Evil himself, Chad Knaus, was suspended for (yet another) rulebook violation. Grubb then spent a year atop the pit box with the hapless Casey Mears before spending 2008 working on the No. 5 and No. 88 programs.
After such a symbiotic relationship with the savvy Greg Zipadelli, how Stewart reacted to the new voice in his earpiece was in some ways going to define his season. But as Stewart pointed out after Martinsville, it seems to be going A-OK so far: “I feel like Darian makes good calls,” he said. “There were times during the race [at Martinsville] he was making changes that I questioned, but they were better and made the car work. He’s really good. The thing is, he’s very sure of himself. He’s very sure of his decisions.”
Those decisions from Hutchens and Grubb don’t just stop at the racetrack, either. The softening economy and the sheer number of talented and dedicated workers available in the NASCAR pool helped, too; and both men found exactly the right combination of old and new crew members to work for them.
“Hiring those right people in those right spots, it’s taken a lot of pressure off of me having to oversee everybody,” said Stewart. “I feel like I could literally not go to the shop for the whole year almost, and other than signing paperwork, it would run just fine with or without me [there].”
Another crucial component in Stewart’s early success has been the equipment and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports. This vital element gives Stewart a baseline to build from, and for a racer with as much street smarts as driving ability, this was a gift horse of the highest order – a key component in Stewart making the move in the first place. The fact that Rick Hendrick makes himself available as a sounding board just enhances the deal, giving Smoke a fantastic outlet as he takes his formative steps into Sprint Cup ownership. But then again, Hendrick was a believer from the first day Stewart made his announcement that he can be successful on his own. “I think Tony has put a lot of sweat equity into it,” he explained. “I think he’s surprised a lot of people. I haven’t been surprised because I know the dedication and what they’ve tried to do.”
Of course, Stewart was not brand new to team ownership in one sense, having presided over World of Outlaws and USAC racing teams for the past three years. Coupled with that responsibility is Stewart’s ownership of Eldora Speedway, that jewel of a half-mile, high-banked dirt track in Ohio which plays host to some of the largest dirt racing events in the country. The Prelude to the Dream, Kings Royal and World 100 all attract over 20,000 spectators annually to a speedway that only continues to grow.
But while this has been useful training, it’s fair to say there’s nothing quite like Sprint Cup ownership these days; just ask Michael Waltrip, who has stumbled and bumbled his way through the past couple of years and is only now coming out the other side, so to speak. But making matters slightly easier, too, is Stewart’s solid sponsorship situation. Office Depot will sponsor the car for 22 races, while Old Spice will do likewise for 14 events – with Burger King picking up the final two remaining events of the 38-race slate.
So, with this team already well above their expectations, can Stewart do the unthinkable and actually win the championship in his first year as an owner? Well… why not? He has the engine and technical support, a fantastic group of dedicated employees, a crew chief not scared to argue and overrule him in terms of setup changes – not to mention years of accumulated experience working with the good folks of JGR. He’s firmly ensconced in fifth place, some 144 markers up on 13th-place Juan Pablo Montoya, and has notched top-10 efforts at all three of the Chase tracks we’ve run thus far (Fontana, Martinsville, Texas).
Cautiously, then, there is plenty of reason for optimism. In sport, like in life, it’s all about taking the opportunities you’re given and running with them as hard as you can. In the first few months of operation, Stewart and indeed the entire SHR team has done just that… and it’s a team that only seems to be getting better with time. Even teammate Newman in the No. 39 has picked up the pace, scoring three straight top-15 finishes after four poor-luck performances to start off the 2009 season. As Smoke himself observes: “It’s like we say every Monday in our competition meeting, we’ve just got to build a database first. Once we get that established, then I think the second time we come around we’re going to be a little better yet.”
Now, other than my slight discomfort here with a guy like Smoke talking databases, if ever there’s proof positive SHR is moving on up – then this is it. There are still 19 races to run before the Chase field is set, but there’s every reason to believe Stewart can be part of the elite field. He’ll still have to go through the Jimmie-Robot, Big Daddy Gordon, Rowdy Busch and his collection of oversized, ridiculous sunglasses (among others) to win it all. But remarkably, all things considered, there’s no compelling reason not to assume Stewart can challenge for a third Sprint Cup crown.
And were he to win one as an owner/driver – this season or in the future – it would have to go down as one of the best stories in NASCAR for years.