Owner/driver Stewart defies the odds
LONG POND, Pa. -- The talk all weekend was how the new double-file restarts with the leaders up front would change strategy for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway.
In the end it was an old, familiar strategy that determined the outcome.
And it was an old, familiar face back in Victory Lane.
Tony Stewart won the battle of fuel mileage, and in doing so won his first points race as an owner/driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. The emotion he felt overshadowed any excitement the double-file restarts may have produced for fans seemingly starving for something more.
There was almost disbelief in Stewart's voice as he crossed the finish line.
"God, I love you guys," he radioed to his crew. "You make me look like a damn genius in here."
Nobody ever doubted Stewart was a genius as a driver. Two Cup championships and countless titles in other series are proof of that. Many considered him downright idiotic to think he could succeed as an owner/driver in a sport that has been hard on that combination over the past few decades.
After all, the last time an owner/driver won was Ricky Rudd in 1998.
But here Stewart sits atop the Cup world, looking like a genius in every way. The victory extended his lead in the points standings to 71 over four-time champion Jeff Gordon and to 103 over three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
And don't forget teammate Ryan Newman is fourth in points after finishing fifth Sunday.
That Stewart won from the back, forced to give up the pole position when he crashed his primary car in Saturday's first practice, makes this even more amazing.
Anybody who believes he can't win a title in his first year as an owner/driver is only kidding himself.
"What's kind of interesting is we haven't had to tune on it much," said Joe Custer, the executive vice president of SHR and the person who came up with the idea of giving Stewart 50 percent of Haas CNC Racing. "That's the exciting thing. We can get better."
That's a scary thing -- if you're the competition.
In 14 starts, Stewart has an amazing seven top-5s -- including three seconds -- and 10 top-10s. He's done it without the flash you might see in former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, steadily and humbly going about his business as though he's been juggling multiple jobs for 10 years.
"It's because of the group of guys I'm working with," Stewart said. "I've always had a great group of people to work with at Gibbs. It's just a little different when it's your own."
Even Stewart's harshest critics are starting to come around. Carl Edwards, who finished second, didn't think the driver of the red No. 14 could win Sunday on fuel mileage or succeed this season as an owner to the level he has.
"I didn't think he would be a factor," Edwards said. "The undertaking of things he set out to do ... he set out to accomplish this year were huge. I personally didn't believe he could get it done. I did not think he could succeed the way he has.
"I am extremely impressed. I can only imagine how good that feels to be able to do what he's done."
One could see the potential before the season. The talent Stewart assembled with crew chief Darian Grubb and competition director Bobby Hutchens, to name a few, was second to none.
Coupled with engines from Hendrick Motorsports, he has made this owner/driver thing look so easy that other top-tier drivers might have to consider it.
It doesn't matter how many races we win. There's only one first time we get to Victory Lane with a new organization. The rest of them will be a number and a stat.” -- Tony Stewart
"It's easy when you have the tools in place, and the tools were there when I got there," Stewart said. "It was a matter of finding a few people to tie up the loose ends, so to speak."
He's right, though. Many people have helped make him look like a genius, particularly this weekend. His mechanics and engineers got the backup car better than the primary on Saturday. His pit crew got him out first after the final stop, which turned out to be crucial.
Stewart led the final 37 laps in part because the car out front -- that's another problem that still needs to be addressed by NASCAR -- has a decided advantage and in part because most of the top 12 teams were conserving gas.
Edwards arguably had the most dominant car, leading six times for 103 laps. He was turning this into a snoozefest until the drama produced by fuel mileage and intrigue of Stewart getting to Victory Lane became a factor.
But Stewart was reminded when he radioed that his crew made him look good: "We don't tell you how to save fuel."
Stewart hates fuel mileages races. He said so over his radio. He prefers chasing down the leader, delivering his infamous "here kitty, kitty, kitty line" and running away from the competition.
But he'll take Sunday's win and cherish it, as he should, perhaps more than any of his other 33 in Cup when he one day has time to appreciate the full magnitude of it.
"There's only one first," he said. "It doesn't matter how many races we win. There's only one first time we get to Victory Lane with a new organization. The rest of them will be a number and a stat."
What the stats won't show is how much work really went into putting this together. Stewart spent tireless hours, often late at night, sneaking people such as Grubb in for interviews and hoping to lure them from other successful organizations.
"That was the most stressful part," Stewart said. "That part was not easy. ... The good thing, when you hire the right people, it has made my life a lot easier."
Again, this weekend was a perfect example. Stewart basically had to sit back and watch all the people he put in place work from the moment he crashed on Saturday until he took the checkered flag.
"Tony said right before the race he felt bad, that he felt like he gave that car away and he was going to earn this one for us," said Grubb, who left HMS to join Stewart. "I told him this was a team.
"Luckily, at the end we were able to show what kind of a team we were by getting him out of the pits first." Stewart always has been surrounded by a good team, whether it was at JGR or one of his Sprint Car organizations. The difference now, and what makes Sunday so significant, is he owns the team.
"It's just fun to watch a young group, so many people from different organizations, have success like this," Stewart said. "That's what makes it fun. That's what makes it different from where I came from."
If anything, Stewart may be the weak link.
Not really. But he was reminded that his other win this season, the Sprint All-Star race, came after he left pit road before his crew could change all four tires in qualifying.
"God, I hate to believe I've got to screw up every week to win a race," Stewart said with a laugh. "I hope not. I hope that's not how it works."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.