One year later, Stewart's high risk reaping rewards
Owner/driver admits being 'half scared' of new venture
By Joe Menzer, NASCAR.COM
July 10, 2009
09:43 PM EDT
JOLIET, Ill. -- As far as anniversaries go, it's a modest one.
But you can't get to 10 -- or even two -- before you get the first one out of the way. And soon after that people quit counting until you're old and the anniversary becomes an afterthought at best, a forgotten memory at worst.
No, we're not talking marriage here. Not the usual kind anyway.
We're talking the one-year anniversary of the official birth of Stewart-Haas Racing, which was announced at Chicagoland Speedway last July. It was then that Tony Stewart made it official: he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, and his career merely as a driver in the Sprint Cup Series, to become owner/driver at the newly formed Stewart-Haas organization.
No one really knew what to expect. But one year into his new deal, Stewart's racing operation is sporting the look of one that will have a long and very successful run in the sport.
"A year ago, I was about half scared to death," Stewart admitted as he prepared for Sunday's LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland. "Obviously I had made a decision that was definitely a life-changing and a different career-path decision for sure."
Stewart said he wasn't certain at the time what it would all mean. He added that he has been pleasantly surprised.
"It was hard to anticipate what exactly the reality of the changes were going to be and what the rules were going to be," Stewart said. "We thought we had an idea of what it was going to be like and it hasn't disappointed us, but it's been smoother than I thought it was going to be.
"At that time a year ago, we didn't have a competition director, we hadn't hired a crew chief. We had a lot of variables that were unknown at that point. Once we got these key people in place, it made my job a lot easier and it's been a lot smoother than I thought it would be at this point."
It has been so smooth that it has been nothing short of remarkable. Stewart hired Bobby Hutchens as competition director and Darian Grubb to be the crew chief of his No. 14 Chevrolet, and eventually hired Ryan Newman to drive the other Stewart-Haas car, the No. 39, with Tony Gibson as Newman's crew chief.
Heading into Sunday's event, Stewart is coming off his second points win of the season last Saturday at Daytona (he also won $1 million by capturing the non-points All-Star Race at Charlotte in May). Stewart remains entrenched in first in the point standings, and Newman is seventh. Both appear to be in great position to be among the 12 drivers who will make the Chase.
No one expected Stewart-Haas Racing to be this successful, this fast. Not even Stewart.
"Like I've said, we've exceeded our expectations to this point," Stewart said. "Not that we really set goals and said this is where we want to be at any stage of it, but I think this is much higher than we possibly could have expected it to be at this point in the season."
Then again, maybe it should not be so much of a surprise. Newman pointed out that the groundwork for success appeared to have been laid even before the announcement last July on the outskirts of Chicago. He was referring to the fact that many of the resources the team now relies on were already in place at Haas/CNC Racing, which essentially didn't so much as "merge" with Stewart as simply hand Stewart half of the company and get out of his way.
"We have to remember that Gene Haas did a great job laying the groundwork and laying the foundation in more ways than one for what we have right now," Newman said. "Tony Stewart and his group have done a great job of moving in different people -- and as we have stated before, people are making the difference.
"In general, it would be a staggering accomplishment for either of us just to be in the Chase. Part of the goal was for both cars to be in the Chase. If we can make that happen, it's a staggering accomplishment, in my opinion."
Last year in Chicago, Newman was not yet part of the Stewart-Haas team. Although he had b een widely rumored as Stewart's top choice as driver of the second Stewart-Haas car, it wouldn't be until later in the month that they finalized the deal.
"I was really still working on my situation, still trying to figure out what I was going to do," Newman said. "I was aware before some other people were about Tony making this announcement one year ago. I kind of knew who was dealing. I just didn't know what the cards were going to be."
Newman eventually decided to leave the No. 12 Dodge he had driven for Penske Racing for seven full-time seasons to join Stewart in his new venture.
"I folded one hand and picked up another," Newman said.
Like a shrewd poker player, it appears he made the right decision. The same could be said for Stewart.
But one year ago, he wasn't so sure of himself.
"This was a big weekend for us a year ago. I don't think any of us would have predicted that a year from then and today that we would be here leading the point standings and have three wins this season," Stewart said. "I'm very excited about it. It's been a long road. It's been a long year, but one that's been very gratifying and a lot of fun at the same time with a lot of work."