Stewart embraces change in repeat bid

Those who figured a significant leadership makeover on Tony Stewart’s team for the 2012 season would somehow distract or deter him may be in for a surprise.

NASCAR’s reigning Sprint Cup Series champ arrived at Daytona International Speedway for this week’s season-opening Daytona 500 as relaxed, determined and calmly confident as anyone — including himself — can remember. And more important, he hasn’t slowed down — literally or figuratively — since delivering the most dramatic postseason championship bid in NASCAR history.

In the two months since Stewart hoisted the 2011 Sprint Cup, he’s already won a karting title and advanced to the Chili Bowl finals — one of midget car racing’s most prestigious events. And he came an eyelash (.013 seconds) short of winning his first Sprint Cup race out of the box with new crew chief Steve Addington in Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout exhibition.

So can Stewart join Jimmie Johnson as only the second driver in the past 15 years to win consecutive championships? Why not?

Just don’t expect him to make any bold predictions

“As much as you’d like to say we’re on top, we’re not,’’ Stewart said. “We’re starting at zero with everybody else now.

“You realize that intensity’s still there, but you realize there is a learning process that’s going on with learning a new crew chief. It’s just part of the process, but you still keep that focus as high as you can.’’

A new crew chief, competition director and a third team are among the wholesale changes Stewart made atop his organization this offseason, but he’s convinced the moves will be invigorating, not a step backward.

He hired his former, longtime crew chief Greg Zipadelli (with whom he won two titles at Joe Gibbs Racing) to become Stewart-Haas Racing’s director of competition. Zipadelli will also serve as crew chief for SHR’s new hire, IndyCar star Danica Patrick, who makes her first of 10 Sprint Cup starts in Sunday’s Daytona 500 in a car the team is collaboratively fielding with Tommy Baldwin Racing.

Addington replaces Darian Grubb atop Stewart’s pit box in a bold personnel move, but one Stewart made with no regrets.

Unbeknownst to everyone else at the time, he and Grubb decided to part ways at the end of the 2011 season in the weeks before the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup began — a 10-race span that resulted in an unprecedented five wins for the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy and Stewart’s third Cup title.

Stewart worked alongside Addington years ago at the Gibbs operation and said he looks forward to a certain comfort level of having both Zipadelli and Addington leading the way.

If he won five of the last 10 races in what must have been awkward circumstances with Grubb, imagine the possibilities when he feels comfortable.

And yet as good as Stewart finished out the 2011 season, he’s not even one of the top two favorites for a title in 2012, according to a poll of the national racing media, which picked Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards as the drivers to beat.

But Stewart doesn’t mind playing “underdog” or having others under-estimate his team’s capacity and will. After all, this is the same driver who last August claimed his team didn’t deserve a place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff field . . . and promptly went out and won five of the last 10 races to take the championship tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

It was one of the most amazing feats in recent memory and especially satisfying for Stewart to accomplish it in only his third year as an owner-driver.

“We’ve enjoyed the whole offseason with the team, and it’s been fun being at the shop to see how excited the guys are,’’ said Stewart. “Guys that three years ago had never won a race, and now they’re celebrating their first championship together.

“I mean in all honesty we have still been riding that high, but we really didn’t sit there and say, ‘Hey we are celebrating a championship,’ ’’ Stewart added.

“That lasted through the (December awards) banquet, then it was right back to work. I mean we were immediately back on the job of trying to figure out how to do the same thing this year.

“It was easy to do that having Zippy (Zipadelli) and Steve Addington come on board, guys that weren’t really with us when we won the championship at the end of the year.

“Their focus was on what we were going to do this year so it kind of got the whole mindset of the shop to not get lazy and think about what we accomplished last year and get working on what we can do to try to repeat this year.”

“Winning never gets old,’’ Stewart reminded with a smile.

“You never say, ‘I’ve won enough.’ All winning does is make you want to win more because you want that same feeling again.’’