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New owner, new energy at Stewart-Haas

1/16/2009 - NASCAR
Expectations are soaring at Stewart-Haas Racing, thanks to the two-time Cup champ. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- No trophy cases line the walls. No championship banners hang from the ceiling. There's not even a full inventory of paraphernalia in the gift shop, although that will change by the time the NASCAR media tour rolls into town next week.

Nothing in the lobby of Stewart-Haas Racing suggests this organization will be any more successful now than it was before two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart was given co-ownership of the company midway through last season.

But look beyond the front desk of what used to be Haas CNC.

Look inside the walls of this 125,000-square-foot facility at fabricators, engineers and mechanics going about their tasks with a feeling of confidence and a sense of urgency never this high before.

Look at the résumés of the new talent, from competition director Bobby Hutchens (Richard Childress Racing/Dale Earnhardt Inc.) to crew chief Darian Grubb (Hendrick Motorsports) to crew chief Tony Gibson (DEI) to driver Ryan Newman (Penske Racing) to owner/driver Stewart (Joe Gibbs Racing).

Look at the list of new sponsors -- U.S. Army, Office Depot and Old Spice -- that are more high-profile than any these walls ever contained.

Listen to the passion in the voices of employees as they speak of where they are and where they want to be six months from now.

There is energy, a level of competence, that makes one believe this organization not only can win its first race, but can compete for spots in the Chase for the Cup.

Maybe even a title.

Not two or three years down the road. Now.

"It's a clean sheet of paper," said Newman, who has 13 wins and 106 top-10s in 260 races. "It's the opportunity to build memories, to build trophy cases, to build smiles and get people in Victory Lane that have never come close."

He paused, thinking back to the first time he walked into the building.

"To me it was more of a museum than a race shop," the defending Daytona 500 champion said. "It was like, 'What are these guys doing here?' It was like a bunch of cars on display. Emotionally, it's changed a lot for those people, as well as me.

"Now it's about the opportunity to fulfill your dreams."

Stewart is the dream maker. He hopes the same formula he used to win all three USAC major championships, two Cup titles and 33 Cup races and become a successful USAC and track owner will translate into a successful Cup organization.

He started by hiring top people in the business to not only improve the level of competition, but to change the attitude and environment in a place that has languished in mediocrity -- no wins, one top-5 and 14 top-10s in 356 races -- since it was formed in 2002 by Haas Automotive owner Gene Haas.

Then he trusted them to do their jobs.

The rest already was in place. Stewart had the engine and chassis support of Hendrick Motorsports, which has produced the past three championships and eight of the past 14. He had top equipment, from the seven-post shaker to the Windshear, a wind tunnel of such technological proportions that there are only two others like it in the world.

He just had to pull all that together and make employees believe they can win instead of hoping they can, to make them go to the track expecting to visit Victory Lane instead of passing it as they fail to qualify.

In one of his first team speeches, Stewart said the goal was to finish first and second every week.

And people believed.

"They had the physical pieces and the tools," Stewart said. "It's just a matter of getting the right people in the right positions and utilizing those tools and making it all work."

Rick Hendrick believes. He understands what was missing at Haas, and is looking for immediate results with what Stewart has assembled.

"I don't think the combination of people was right," Hendrick said. "What Tony has done is pull in some great people. It's hard to bet against that talent."

HO, HO, HO

It was Christmas Eve and Stewart was busy trying to make sure every employee got out of the shop.

"It was important to him, not necessarily that people were working on Christmas Eve, but that people were getting out to be with their families," said Brett Frood, who left his job in Indianapolis overseeing all of Stewart's businesses to become the senior vice president of Stewart-Haas.

Family is important to Stewart, who several years ago moved back into the modest ranch home in Columbus, Ind., where he grew up. He told prospective employees that the best way to achieve success was to support each other with the unconditional devotion of a family member.

The way he walks around the shop, stopping to pat employees on the back or give them a pep talk, reminds Hutchens of the late Dale Earnhardt when he was driving for RCR and building DEI.

"That'll probably offend somebody," he said. "But [Stewart] wants to be a people person, and at the end of the day that'll hold this race team together like it held that 3 car together for a lot of years."

Hutchens speaks from personal experience. When his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Stewart offered everything from time off to the use of his private plane to make sure she was a priority.

"The night I came over to interview and talk about the job, that's one of the first things he told me: family first," Hutchens said. "It's what we started the Christmas party off with. It was what's in this room that's going to make the difference at the track and in our lives day to day."

Stewart's presence on Christmas Eve definitely had a profound impact on Adam Davis, the team conditioning coach and a front-tire changer for Newman.

"That shows how much of a racer he is, how much he wants to succeed," said Davis, who was with the No. 70 Haas team that had six different drivers this past season. "Having him come on board, everybody's eyes lit up."

They were particularly lit up on Christmas Eve.

"It wasn't about me," Stewart said. "Those guys know that I was there supporting them, but I realize they were sacrificing their holiday, and I just felt like if they were that dedicated I wanted them to know that I was that dedicated, too."

And for the record, Stewart was the last to leave on Christmas Eve.

"We kind of had to push him out the door, too," Hutchens said. "He has a mom and dad, too. But it's neat to see that energy. Everybody feeds off that."

NOT ABOUT FRILLS

Stewart's office is like many in the building. Boxes remain to be unpacked and pictures are leaning against the wall. All that really stands out here is a framed photo of him and his hero, A.J. Foyt, and an authentic 1979 Indiana license plate that reads "AJFOYT."

"The priority hasn't been to hang pictures," said Frood, whose office also remains a work in progress.

The priority has been to build cars capable of putting either Stewart or Newman in Victory Lane. Everyone has sacrificed, from Stewart, who skipped the Chili Bowl that he competes in every year, to employees, who have put in 12- to 15-hour days, often wrapping up with a pizza dinner at the shop.

"It's been all about what can we do to change the personnel to turn it into a team that can vie for championships with the Hendricks and [Richard] Childresses of the world," Frood said.

It's a clean sheet of paper. It's the opportunity to build memories, to build trophy cases, to build smiles and get people in Victory Lane that have never come close.

-- Ryan Newman

Hendrick is most impressed with all the time Stewart has spent at the shop, "in the middle of it."

"He's going to be a great owner because he's hands-on," he said.

Grubb, who won two races as Jimmie Johnson's interim crew chief during a four-race stretch to start the 2006 season with Chad Knaus suspended, sees a lot of Hendrick in Stewart, including the way he handles people so personally.

"That face-to-face connection, and them knowing he's there and he wants to be their boss, their owner and their driver, that means a lot to them," he said.

Adams agreed. People are talking about going to Daytona to win, something he'd never heard before.

"You wanted to hear it," he said. "You wanted to tell yourself you can win. You don't want to say you can't or you won't, but being realistic, having seven or eight different drivers during last year, I don't think the actual winning attitude was there.

"Last year at this time we were hoping to run in the top 20. That was our goal. This year it's top-5s, top-10s all day long."

Stewart surprises many with how business-savvy he is. Newman and Hutchens, in particular, have been pleasantly surprised.

"I don't mean to sound derogatory, but he's smarter than I ever gave him credit for," Newman said.

Hutchens has noticed the same thing, whether it's in a team meeting or at the Fiesta Bowl, where Stewart was more interested in how NASCAR could use giant screens, instead of billboards around the track, to advertise.

"He pays attention to a lot of things other people don't," he said.

Stewart is not an owner who walks into the shop and says hello and then goes about his day as though his schedule is most important.

"There are people that have jobs, and they're all responsible for their part of it," he said. "But at the end of the day, I'm responsible for all of it. It's making sure that they get everything they need to do their jobs so that we are prepared and ready when we go to Daytona."

RELAXED AND RELOADED

Hutchens looked out of his office window overlooking the main shop just as he did for hours his first day on the job.

"The biggest thing that scared me was we didn't have any race cars," he said.

There are plenty of cars now. There also are plenty of employees: close to 200, working tirelessly.

"As we hired people week to week, day to day, it was interesting to watch the interaction of people that hadn't worked together or may have worked together and were reunited here," he said.

"I like to see people get along. We've had great success with that. That's only going to lend itself to running better on Sundays."

Stewart has facilitated the molding of relationships. The intense driver who often is a lightning rod for criticism and controversy on the track is nowhere to be found around the shop.

The 37-year-old driver appears more relaxed and happier than ever. The pressure of having so many responsibilities hasn't been overwhelming.

"I won't say this isn't a big chore," Hutchens said. "But to Tony it's just something else he can find in his daily 24 hours."

Stewart actually seems to relish having a new challenge. He doesn't appear to have any trouble spreading his focus, whether it's here or preparing for an event at Eldora Speedway or making a sponsor appearance or testing at New Smyrna Speedway.

"When Tony is in a race car he's just worried about getting to the front; he has just one focus," Frood said. "Out of the race car he's about the team; he has several hundred different focuses."

But the ultimate focus is to one day have the front lobby of Stewart-Haas filled with trophy cases and banners, so when people walk in they'll see success and not just imagine it.

"Hopefully, in a few weeks, we'll bring the Daytona 500 trophy back and stick it in that lobby," Hutchens said. "I don't plan on going for anything else. I'll be disappointed like everybody else will be here if we don't win."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.