NASCAR

Has Stewart silenced his critics?

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Plenty of people wondered whether Tony Stewart could pull this off. Could the sometimes fiery and generally intense Stewart manage being both a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and a team co-owner? More important, could he manage to build a team that has historically struggled into a successful unit in one season? So far, so good on that front — at least for the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing entry. After 10 years as a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, a span that included two Cup championships and 33 wins, Stewart opted to buy into what was the Haas CNC Racing team late last season. He took over a co-ownership role, hired Ryan Newman to join him as a teammate and set about revamping a struggling organization. Only one of the group's two teams entered this season is in the top 35 in owner points, but Stewart has a provisional to fall back on in the opening five races — should he need it — as the series' most recent past champion. He hasn't had to use it. In fact, he has reeled off three top-10 finishes in the opening four races and sits sixth in the cup standings entering the season's first off weekend. Newman, however, hasn't fared as well. Besieged by engine failures, pit-road problems and issues with tires, Newman has struggled to sit 33rd after the opening four races.

Still, for an essentially new operation, the net result has been positive. Some of that No. 39 group's setbacks have been beyond their control. So Newman, a 13-race winner in the series, should be able to overcome and move back into a more comfortable points position if he can avoid pitfalls for a few weeks. Stewart, meanwhile, appears to be shining in his new role. He has shown his management skills in setting up a system where he can race on weekends without worrying about the business side of things. He has experience as a team owner in other series, but nothing that truly compares to the massive multimillion-dollar juggling act that Cup ownership can be. Former Hendrick Motorsports' engineer Darian Grubb has joined the group as Stewart's crew chief, and Tony Gibson, formerly with Dale Earnhardt Inc., is working with Newman. Bobby Hutchens, who spent the majority of his career working for Richard Childress Racing and then Dale Earnhardt Inc., joined the program as competition director. Hutchens referred to the teams as a "pretty resilient group" following the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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Grubb sees them as more of a work in progress. He looks at how the young group learns from each race and the potential that rests in the organization. "We have had a lot of different issues all the way through this year with every race," he says. "We haven't been able to overcome all of them and still have these solid finishes we need. The couple times we haven't, we have gone back, learned from these mistakes. We have gone to the shop, and everybody has put the extra hours in to figure out what is wrong, so when we go back next week we don't have that problem. "We will keep moving forward." For Stewart, the dual roles seem to be a natural fit. Since January, he's been asked repeatedly if he is enjoying Cup team ownership, and the answer has always been in the affirmative. "I enjoy it a lot," he says. "There's a sense of pride everyday when you come in the garage and you see the No. 39 (of Ryan Newman) and you see the No. 14 car sitting there. You realize the sponsors that you have and the group of guys that you've assembled and the fact that everybody has enough faith in what you're trying to do to want to be a pat of it. That makes you feel good." So far, things have gone exceptionally well for Stewart. He has finished eighth three times and was 26th at Las Vegas. He's appears confident in his new team and its potential.
While it has obviously been a learning experience, Stewart says that team co-ownership has not interfered with his role as a driver. His system of focusing on ownership Monday through Thursday and on driving the car on weekends appears to be working. Still, he admits that he has probably changed a little since taking on his new dual role. "I think it's probably calmed me down a little bit from the standpoint that there's 150 people at the shop that I'm responsible for, and it's not only them," he says. "It's their spouses, their girlfriends, their children, so that number easily turns into 450. Everything that you do you try to keep in mind how it's going to affect yourself but how it also affects the other people in your organization."


Rea White is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 50 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.

Tagged: Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart

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