NASCAR

Changes give Stewart-Haas optimism

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Rea White

Rea White has been covering NASCAR full time since 1998. She has won awards from press agencies in Alabama and North Carolina and formerly served as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Follow her on Twitter.

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CONCORD, NC

There’s certainly no shortage of confidence in the Stewart-Haas Racing ranks — something that should encourage fans of drivers Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick and cause a certain level of concern for those who race against them in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

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After all, one might not expect optimism to be quite so high considering what the team faces. First, a year after winning the title Stewart endured quite a few setbacks in 2012 and settled for ninth in the standings. Still, a three-win season and top-10 finish is far from anything to scoff at. Second, teammate Ryan Newman fared even worse in 2012, failing to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup and finishing 14th in the standings, though he did win a race.

Now look what the group takes on in 2013. Not only are they joining the field in adjusting to NASCAR’s Generation 6 car, but they are adding a third full-time team with Patrick.

Plus they continue to seek sponsorship for a few races for each of their drivers. And, on a side note, Stewart is also owner of Eldora Speedway, which will host a Camping World Truck Series race for the first time this season as the series debuts at a dirt track.

Still, the team is embracing the concept that change is good.

They’ve shuffled some personnel in the shop, adding some new talent and trying to find the best roles for everyone there. They’ve run well in testing, avoided tearing up any cars in the drafting crash at Daytona earlier this year and are working on making the most of what they have.

Will it be the formula to getting back on top in 2013?

It’s hard to define exactly what went wrong in 2012. Stewart was a bit up and down over the course of the year, then started the Chase third in the standings. It was a bit of a bumpy ride from there.

Coming off his stellar run during the 2011 Chase — a stretch in which he won five races and took the title in a tiebreaker — Stewart just couldn’t quite gain that kind of edge last year.

Competition Director Greg Zipadelli says the team got off track on a couple of things. They built new cars, but found they didn’t run any better. Coming off a championship year, they were reminded just how difficult a repeat bid can be.

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Now, he believes they are back on track — and ready to overcome any potential setbacks that could crop up in the opening weeks of the season as everyone adjusts to a series of changes in the sport.

“I’ve always looked at this sport as very humbling, day by day,” Zipadelli said. “You just work as hard as you can, you put the effort in that you can and hopefully it’s enough to lead you to the top. If it’s not, you adjust and do what you can. I think it can be very deflating if you allow it to be. I can remember the days that we could do no wrong. We could go out and lead ... and win it and get back to next week and it didn’t seem like we could do anything right, but I don’t ever feel like we were doing anything different.

“It’s just part of the sport. You think about your racing, you’re competing against the 42 other best drivers every time the green flag drops to the checkered flag. I think the sport is, it’s a tough sport. And the closer they make these cars, I think the harder it is at times. ... It’s just the nature of this beast. I think that’s professional sports and the best thing you can do is to be positive, upbeat, and just give it everything you have every day and hope for the results. In this sport there is a little bit of luck, but you do truly, your work and your preparation, a lot of it is your work.”

Part of that work has come in everyone getting to know one another better. That starts with crew chief Steve Addington and Stewart, who worked together for a full Cup season for the first time last year.

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Changes have sparked the intensity and optimism within this team. Zipadelli said they’ve moved a couple of engineers to try to strengthen the entire operation and they’ve got “some younger people, very aggressive, kind of full-of-life on board to try and match personalities with Steve Addington maybe a little bit better.” They’ve worked to set up a better support system around the crew chiefs to aid the effort.

Now, everyone could reap the rewards.

“We kind of know how each other works,” Addington said. “The thing is being able to wipe the slate clean with a new car, the way you approach things setup wise and things like that, everybody’s got to go into it with an open mind and trying new things and that’s the exciting part for me. They won five races and the championship (in 2011) and still you struggle with guys to evolve into a new setup.

“Things in this business change so quick that sometimes it’s hard to butt heads with what’s going on. We’re all excited because we’re wiping the slate clean on it and everybody’s throwing their ideas out there for us to try. From engineering at the shop to the guys at the racetrack we’re all working together and between the three crew chiefs it’s just an exciting time of the year being able to wipe the slate clean and be able to go again.”

Stewart, meanwhile, is wearing the multiple hats of owner/driver well. He can talk about the business of his team while also pointing out the roles of others in handling certain aspects.

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Most of all, he just seems optimistic on all fronts.

In terms of his ownership role, he continues to face a need for additional sponsorship. He says that nine races are available on his car, eight or nine on Newman’s and three on Patrick’s.

“We’d love to sell that inventory, obviously, that would make it easier on us but racers are very resourceful, they always have been, you always take what you have and you make the most with it so we’ve been able to do that the first four years we’ve been with this organization and we’ll keep doing so,” he said.

He quickly points out that this is no different from any business. The team simply focuses its resources in the areas that need the most emphasis and continues to find interest from others interested in being involved in sponsorship.

Overall, Stewart seems content entering the season. Confidence is high — from the top on down. Is that a sign that the past is just that — and things will be better this year?

“I’ve been racing for 34 years and every year hasn’t been a championship-winning year,” Stewart said. “You always find a way to rebound from it. You always are concerned about what gets you in that position, but I don’t think there’s a team out there that has the attitude that they can’t get out of that and they’re not going to get out of that.”

Tagged: Danica Patrick, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart

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