As you wake up this morning, you’ll find so much written about what Tony Stewart has done this year… and rightfully so. As I said two weeks ago, the patience he’s showed as an owner/driver has been beyond what anyone could have expected from a man once put on probation for punching a photographer in the face. It’s the calm, maturing influence both off the track and behind the wheel which led Stewart to conserve fuel in the closing laps at Pocono, putting him in the rare position of using a strategy call to coast to the win over a car in Carl Edwards which was clearly the fastest on the track. Becoming the first owner/driver to win since Ricky Rudd in 1998 – as well as the first to lead the points since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 – has Stewart checking goals off his “to-do” list a heck of a lot earlier than anyone expected.
But for all the amazing things Stewart’s achieved to date, perhaps his greatest strength comes from something he chose not to do: stay in his comfort zone.
Of course, no one would blame the man if that’s exactly how his career played out. After two championships and over 30 victories in a decade’s worth of racing with Joe Gibbs, Stewart had earned the right to have a lifetime of mulligans over at the No. 20. Like any person settled into a successful job, Stewart had the support of his boss, was beloved by his co-workers, and the respect of a superstar athlete turned future Hall Of Famer. Despite a slump in early 2008 that saw Kyle Busch earn all the accolades at JGR, there was no doubt that even in an off year the No. 20 team was capable of making the Chase and becoming a title contender once summer turned into fall. It was a dog-and-pony show Stewart had perfected through the years, a routine he could have easily continued through the rest of his career behind the wheel until he – and only he – decided it was time to do other things.
Rare is the athlete that earns the right to control his own destiny – even rarer is the one who gives up a sure thing. But for the best of the best, success never truly satisfies them unless they’ve experienced it in every way possible within their sport. And while for some, the statistics earned in a lifetime of racing at Gibbs would lead to relaxation… for Stewart, it led to reflection. Sure, with Busch’s instantaneous success he could have stuck it out a la Jeff Gordon once Jimmie Johnson started running circles around him at Hendrick Motorsports (not that Gordon would ever leave, but he’s allowed Johnson to push him in ways Busch could have easily done the same). And then there’s the matter of the man on top of the pit box, someone who at one time made his driver seem unstoppable. Stewart and Zipadelli had made magic together for 10 years as a driver/crew chief combination; over time, they’d figure out a way to keep up with the Joneses once again. Despite reports of ill will between the two men by the time Stewart left at the end of 2008, there’s no doubt it’s a driver/crew chief marriage that could have continued unaltered over the course of the rest of their careers.
Yes, I admit, there were some warning signs Stewart’s time with JGR was reaching an end. Smoke had the rug pulled out from under him when the longtime Chevrolet supporter found himself driving Toyotas at the beginning of 2008. Hamlin was slowly getting replaced with the nickname “run-in” by Stewart over at Gibbs, and new kid Kyle Busch wasn’t exactly a bundle full of roses, either. But how often in life do we overlook extenuating circumstances in order to stick with the status quo? Especially in this economic climate, it’s harder than ever to say the grass is greener on the other side, and jumping across to find out is reserved for all but the bravest of souls.
Yet that’s where Stewart proved himself the most courageous. For despite all the Hendrick engines, chassis, and support that was promised, the man’s initial jump was from a team that had all three cars in the Chase to one that finished the season without a top-five finish. No question, the move required a leap of faith at a time where the potential for disaster was high.
But for Stewart, perhaps that’s why Haas CNC ended up being the most appealing purchase.
“Sometimes, you just need a change to get that little shot in the arm that you need,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean that you were not happy with what you were doing before. Sometimes, it just means that you need a fresh start.”
“Everybody assumes that you’re always set up for failure when you make a change.”
Failure was exactly what everyone expected early on, although it hasn’t take long for the court of public perception to rally to Stewart’s aid. Four months into the season, an often split crowd clearly morphed into a unison on clapping hands and earned respect, kudos given to a man who succeeded on a battlefield that he chose to draw.
“It’s a special day for the organization,” he said afterwards. “There will be a banner hanging in the shop that marks this day in time, you know, in history for the organization. But you can’t sit there and sit on it too long. I mean, you’ve got to keep working forward to try to add to that.”
For Stewart, that should be no problem… for at this point, he’s proved that staying put is clearly not his style.
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