He that can have patience, can have what he will. – Benjamin Franklin
For over a decade, Tony Stewart was never confused with being a patient man. After all, the driver nicknamed Smoke for his infamous temper tantrums on and off the track won his first Cup title while under probation for punching a track photographer after a bad day. Those types of incidents throughout his career left more than a few skeptics on the fence this season as Stewart made his debut as an owner/driver in NASCAR. For them, it wasn’t a matter of if he could keep his frustrations from boiling over into an ugly mess… but when.
Turns out somewhere during these last three months, Stewart found a way to turn down the heat on that stove.
As the No. 14 Chevrolet pulled into victory lane Saturday night, the driver/owner who compared himself to the fiery AJ Foyt in February was hardly playing the part of his mentor. Instead of pushing the issue, Stewart’s first ever All-Star Race win came at the heels of picking his spots, watching intently as teammate Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon effectively took themselves out of contention ahead of him in a three-car wreck. When the Smoke cleared, it was Smoke himself who held the cards, breezing by Matt Kenseth with two laps to go to pull off his first ever victory in the All-Star Race.
As expected, Stewart’s charge through the field – sixth to first in those final 10 laps – led to the type of jubilation you’d expect from a man that, at 37, made a career-changing move in the offseason pay off. But with his latest trophy to his Sprint Cup collection came a new type of attitude we hadn’t quite seen in the media room: humility.
“I didn’t think in 10 minutes, you could do so much in such a short amount of time,” Stewart said of the break before the 10-lap final segment – one where crew chief Darian Grubb touched everything underneath the car to make it work. “That was a huge 10-minute period in my life, having the opportunity to come in and turn Darian loose. I think the guy’s David Copperfield all of a sudden.”
And so it went, a press conference full of answers that gave credit to everyone other than himself. Indeed, just Stewart’s realization about Grubb’s three-month magic act is proof to how the two-time champion has come around. It’s an important partnership to secure, indeed, as one of the things people forget when Stewart formed his own team is he wasn’t allowed to take crewmen with him from Joe Gibbs Racing. Everyone and everything he put together was filled with new personnel, a chemistry experiment led by a man who once got rubbed the wrong way all too easy.
Instead, Grubb, Director of Competition Bobby Hutchens and all of their new hires have meshed together better than anyone ever thought they would; and the best part of all is, they’re in love with the boss. In a show of solidarity, the No. 14 crew took Stewart’s victory tradition to the next level after the race, climbing the fence in support of a man who had faith in taking over a team that failed to crack the top five during all of 2008.
It was a gesture that clearly left their owner more than a little moved. An All-Star Race win may have meant a cool $1 million for NASCAR’s new owner/driver sensation – but the smile on his face showed that for a two-time champ who’s already achieved Hall of Fame credentials, success in this sport is no longer about the money.
“They’ve been an awesome group of guys to work with up to this point,” he explained of his time heading up the No. 14. “And that’s the most gratifying part about it. It’s about seeing those guys and seeing them celebrating and smiling in victory lane when I got there – and seeing how happy they were and the excitement on their faces. There’s no check that you can write in any amount that’s going to make up for that and could take the place of it.”
That’s not the first time the man has gone out of his way to praise the crew on his team this year. Every bad pit stop, every poor decision has come with not shouting but simple support from their owner behind the wheel, preaching patience while relishing the opportunity to build confidence in someone other than himself. As a result, we’ve seen an intriguing irony of sorts where a man accused of tearing a team apart in his waning days behind the wheel in the No. 20 now finds himself an unquestioned leader somewhere else.
That’s not to say Stewart’s temper won’t show its ugly head at some point. But it’s a whole lot different to get frustrated six months into an ownership role than six weeks. In the former, you’ll never fully earn the respect of the crew; in the latter, the crew will move mountains in order to respond to you.
Right now, they’re all in line behind a driver who’s as laid-back as we’ve ever seen, and that temperament is why it’s no surprise Stewart’s put himself in the best position this early in the season than ever in his 11-year Cup career.
Because, after all, doesn’t a little patience always seem to go a long way?
Bowles Bits (One-liners about the race that was)
- Just as Tony’s peaking with the No. 14, Joey Logano is clearly getting it together at the No. 20. All’s well that ends well?
- You gotta think a win for Kenseth would have done wonders for him; instead, second place may have wound up denting the No. 17 team’s confidence even more.
- Tony Eury Jr. did nothing to save his job Saturday; and now that Hendrick’s healthy, count me among those who say he’s no longer with the No. 88 as of next Monday morning.
- In my diary for SI this week, Carl Edwards told me it’s gotten to the point Lowe’s is the hardest 1.5-miler to pass on other than Darlington. And apart from those final 10 laps Sunday… it showed.
- Looks like Penske knew what he was doing when preaching patience about Sam Hornish Jr.
- Not a sellout, but a good crowd (100,000-plus) at Charlotte that got to see a great final 10 laps. Let’s cross the fingers and hope the economy – and dwindling attendance – may start to bottom out this summer.
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