Stewart’s dual role harder than ever

When Tony Stewart was dishing out some old-school, bumper-bashing racing discipline to Brian Vickers at Infineon Raceway two weeks ago, he was thinking and reacting like a race driver.

When Vickers retaliated and ended Stewart’s day, however, handling the championship fallout — a drop in the Sprint Cup Series points — was ultimately an ownership headache for NASCAR’s highest-profile owner/driver. And it’s yet another example of the delicate and difficult juggling act Stewart has leading his namesake Stewart-Haas Racing team through its most challenging season.

After stunning fans and impressing the competition by reeling off seven wins and making the championship cut its first two years of existence, the organization — Stewart in particular — is facing a harsh reality and big-time gut check this season.

“My role is to be the cheerleader, and they are as big a cheerleader as I am,” Stewart told last week at an appearance for sponsor Office Depot before the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve never seen such a group of guys that have bonded and stayed upbeat about everything.’’

From the outside, Stewart’s young team is merely going through growing pains, but it’s more like a growing pain for Stewart, a two-time Cup champ who’s much more familiar with overachievement and short learning-curves than this underwhelming season rife with obstacles.

Both Stewart and his teammate Ryan Newman are suffering through an uncharacteristic winless run through the first half of the year. They are ranked 12th and 10th, respectively, in the standings with nine races remaining to set the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff field. The top-10 drivers automatically qualify for the Chase — but the two wild cards, the 11th and 12th positions, are decided by wins, something neither SHR driver has to fall back on so far.

Then, last month, Stewart released his director of competition, Bobby Hutchens, a 20-year NASCAR veteran who had been with the team since its inception. That leaves Stewart to conduct a thorough search for a viable replacement in the middle of the season.

Beyond the performance of the cars and finding suitable leadership in the shop, Stewart is navigating rumor control and possibly devoting some energy to behind-the-scenes deal-making. The prevailing — but unconfirmed — opinion is that Stewart will field a third Cup car part-time in 2012 for open-wheel star Danica Patrick to complement her likely full-time Nationwide Series ride with JR Motorsports.

“The team is handling it in stride,” Stewart said with an assuring smile.

“Thinking about the points side (of the Vickers incident), I wish it would have been different. But it’s been a frustrating year; we’re all frustrated.

“We have had the weirdest things happen that have never happened before. The problem is it’s been happening week after week after week. It’s not something the guys are doing wrong, but just freak things that keep happening. We’ve had legitimately four or five opportunities to win races and have let them fall through the cracks.

“It’s frustrating for the guys; it’s frustrating for me.”

The balancing act between passionate driver and reasonable owner is a burden — and blessing — that none of his fellow championship contenders share.

It was evident even this week as Stewart — the driver — was making a stand on the eve of the Daytona race, promising to take race action against drivers who use blocking techniques on him or those he perceives aren’t racing him fairly.

“If we miss the Chase because of it then, so be it, and that’s not what the team is going to want to hear,” Stewart said, “That’s not what our sponsors are going to want to hear, but so be it.”

Ultimately, Stewart’s abilities as a leader may need to trump his immense talent behind the wheel. How the emotionally charged Stewart handles this next great test of NASCAR ownership adversity will be crucial.

As you might guess, it’s not something he is backing away from. He’s too invested.

Knowing all the work, energy and care that went into forming a two-car team at NASCAR’s elite level, Stewart said he sees this current state of affairs as the normal evolution of a new team with high expectations.

“The hard part for me is trying to find answers to fix the problems that are keeping us from winning races and keeping us from running consistently like we want,” Stewart said. “The fact I’m not having to keep my guys motivated to do what they’re doing is half the load off our shoulders.

“I’m really proud of these guys keeping their composure and staying focused. We know we’re not where we want to be in the points, not where we want to be performance-wise.

“You can’t buy their attitude and their determination. Luckily, I have an organization that has that.”

And an owner and a driver who has it, too.