Looking for an upswing at SHR
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart refuses to play Pollyanna.
He won't say everything in his world is cotton candy and lollipops. A politician, he's not. Putting spin on a topic runs against his nature.
Unlike most team owners, Stewart will tell it to you straight. No fluff. No overly optimistic predictions for the upcoming season.
So here's what you get when you ask Stewart if Stewart-Haas Racing made gains in the offseason.
"Every organization is going to make gains," Stewart said. "It's just a matter of who gains more and have you gained enough to make a difference."
And the truth is no one knows who is better than whom at this point.
"You don't know until you get four or five races into the season whether you've done enough to be better," Stewart said. "You don't know if you've grown as much as they've grown or caught up."
Don't get the wrong idea. Stewart isn't lacking confidence about what he and Ryan Newman can accomplish this season at SHR based on the work the team did over the winter.
"Yeah, but it's not stuff we can tell you guys," Stewart said. "You work all winter to not give that to everybody else. You try to do things to make your program better. You do the best you can at growing your organization."
Now in its third season, Stewart believes SHR is much better today than it was when he took over in 2009. In fact, Stewart believes he has another Cup championship in him for 2011, the year he turns 40 and six years removed from his second Cup title at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"If I didn't, you won't see me driving a racecar anymore," Stewart said. "I'm not going to do this unless I feel like I have a shot to win races and championships. I'm not going to hang on and ride out a career. That's not what this is to me."
It doesn't show as much these days with Stewart in team-owner mode, but the fire still burns inside him. He proved that point last month in Australia with the alleged helmet-tossing incident in an altercation with a track promoter.
Gibbs, Stewart's former boss, was taken aback by Tony's calmness the last two years as a team owner. He poked fun at Stewart while they both spoke with reporters during the Joe Gibbs Racing 20-year celebration last month.
"Tony becomes an owner and not one ripple from him," Gibbs said. "He doesn't call Goodyear names, nothing. I wondered, 'Has he had a lobotomy?' Then, two weeks ago, it all came back."
Despite that one temperamental moment, ownership has changed Stewart for the better.
"It's just a lot more work," Stewart said. "If you have a good day, it's a great day. If you have a bad day, it's a miserable day. It's like the range of emotion goes higher and lower when you have that ownership side attached to it."
Stewart continues to find major sponsors for SHR, adding Mobil 1 to his No. 14 Chevrolet this season. Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, said the partnership with Mobil 1 also brings technological support.
SHR has a solid alliance already with its relationship to Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick leases engines and chassis to SHR. It was good enough for Stewart to win four races in 2009 and both SHR drivers to make the Chase.
Our last 10 races were strong. That was the highlight of our season last year, so coming off that and having some momentum mentally and physically is big for our team. Based on that, I look forward to starting this season a little more than I did this time last year.” -- Ryan Newman
But 2010 was a small step backward. Stewart won twice last season and Newman failed to make the Chase despite winning a race in the No. 39 Chevy, his first victory at SHR.
Newman was encouraged how 2010 ended for him, posting eight top-10s in the last 13 events, including second place at Phoenix and seventh at Homestead in the last two races.
"Our last 10 races were strong," Newman said. "That was the highlight of our season last year, so coming off that and having some momentum mentally and physically is big for our team. Based on that, I look forward to starting this season a little more than I did this time last year."
Some people still question whether an SHR driver could win out over a Hendrick driver if a championship was on the line between the two groups at the end.
Would SHR still receive equal equipment to the Hendrick driver it was competing against?
"If I didn't think that [we would get equal equipment], I wouldn't be here," said Bobby Hutchens, SHR director of competition. "I've heard that stuff for two years, but I'm more than pleased with the equipment we get from Hendrick."
That doesn't change the fact that Stewart still believes Jimmie Johnson is the man to beat.
"When a guy has [won the title] five times in a row, what basis would you have to bet against him?'' Stewart said. "You wouldn't do it in any other sport unless something is different that you physically can see. Nobody's seen anything that proves he's not on track to do it again."
And who was the last man other than Johnson to win the championship? Stewart is the guy. Has he been smart enough as a team owner to get there again?
"Who said I was smart to begin with? I don't think anybody has ever accused me of being smart," Stewart joked. "This is a constant learning process and a constant growing process.
"The things you did right last year probably aren't right now, so you have to constantly grow. Race teams are in a constant state of change. Everybody tries to figure out how to be 1 percent better than the other guys."
Don't expect any Pollyanna outlook from Stewart. He doesn't know if SHR gained that 1 percent, but he can't wait to find out.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2011 Daytona 500
The 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is on the horizon, with a new racing surface greeting competitors heading into a new season of hope. It all begins Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway.