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(Sam Sharpe/US Presswire)
What makes it clear that Tony Stewart will soon fly high as an owner-driver is that he has learned the value of bonding between driver and team, down to every fabricator in the shop, every tire carrier on the pit road.
That's why Stewart the boss was so much happier for his worker bees than for himself, Stewart the driver, after they won the All-Star Race on Saturday night.
"To get these guys on the team that haven't been to Victory Lane yet, to get them there for the first time, that means more than a million dollars [the posted prize money] to me," he told reporters at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "It's that gratifying to get this group of guys in Victory Lane.
"It's about seeing those guys and seeing them celebrating and smiling in Victory Lane when I got there, seeing how happy they were and the excitement on their faces."
Stewart learned the hard way back at Joe Gibbs Racing, when the driver-team relationship was sometimes so tempestuous as to make his old crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, cry in exasperation.
Last year, Stewart was handed 50 percent of Haas CNC Racing, which had never been to Victory Lane at the Cup level and had and owner, Gene Haas, who was in federal custody for tax fraud.
Haas was at Lowe's on Saturday night, having just been released from a 16-month term.
Except that this was Stewart's first All-Star win, victory was nothing new for the two-time Cup champion who has 33 points wins. Nor was it new to his crew chief, Darian Grubb, who won the 2006 Daytona 500 subbing as pit boss for Chad Knaus, with Jimmie Johnson.
But it was new for Haas and many of the shop employees, some retained from the old Haas team, others newly hired as Stewart expanded and rebuilt.
And Stewart -- whose ownership in a team seems to have matured him more than his years as he rapidly approaches 38 -- knew the value of showing a winless team that it can break through.
No owner-driver had won the All-Star race since Geoff Bodine in 1994, and no owner-driver has won a points race since Ricky Rudd at Martinsville in '98.
And most observers thought Stewart would have a rough time, at least starting out, as a team owner.
But he is second in points, with five top-5s in the past six points races. And the old NASCAR rule of thumb is that if you keep putting yourself in position to win, you will win.
Stewart and his new band of friends had a convincing dress rehearsal for that Saturday night.
Two milestones were reached in the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 on Friday night: Ron Hornaday Jr. got his 40th Truck win, and Kyle Busch learned to slam the brakes on his postrace language.
"It's unfortunate that our night really ssss-stunk that bad," Busch told Speed TV after being sent to the back of the field twice on penalties but still finishing second.
The hissing sound before "stunk" indicated Busch might have been running on the ragged edge of using his more-preferred vulgar verb, which connotes the creation of a semi-vacuum with the mouth.
But he saved it, and went on: "and we finished second!"
Of his 40th win, Hornaday, 50, shrugged in Victory Lane at Lowe's Motor Speedway and said, "I didn't even think about that."
Hornaday took the lead for keeps on the 107th of 134 laps when he blew past Busch into second place and then past Matt Crafton in one blistering charge.
The win vaulted Hornaday into the series points lead over Mike Skinner, who was knocked out of the race in a horrific-looking crash only 35 laps into the event.
Squeezed into the grass by Johnny Sauter, Skinner's truck went sideways and slammed almost head-on into the SAFER barrier at the once-deadly "1 o'clock angle" that biomechanical engineers used to fear so greatly.
It was a similar angle to the one at which Dale Earnhardt hit the wall and was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
But with safety innovations since Earnhardt's death -- the SAFER barrier, the HANS head-restraint device and cocoonlike safety seats -- Skinner was able to radio his crew almost immediately after his truck stopped tumbling and tell them, "I'm OK."
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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