Stewart has something to prove
Will Tony Stewart be ready for the challenge of being an owner and driver? He believes -- with a solid foundation under him and Ryan Newman behind the wheel of Stewart-Haas Racing's second car -- he is, writes Marty Smith.
It was November 2007, and Tony Stewart was none too pleased about Joe Gibbs Racing's pending move to Toyota. He was a General Motors man, after all, and would just as soon keep it that way.
But for Coach Joe and his boys it was a decision born from necessity -- they weren't the big dogs at GM. Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Childress were.
So they made a change.
And so would Stewart -- one that would drop jaws from Daytona to del Rey.
So began the plot to get Stewart back to the bow tie.
Six months later word began to spread throughout the industry that Stewart was disgruntled at Gibbs and might soon leave. Folks scoffed at the notion, but behind closed doors it was actually happening.
Word also spread that Stewart had become interested in Cup team ownership, and might even purchase Haas/CNC Racing. Again, folks scoffed. Again, it was happening.
Chevrolet racing executives and Rick Hendrick worked with Stewart's management team to hatch a plan, one which ultimately led to an agreement with Haas/CNC for Stewart to become part owner of the two-car Chevy Cup operation.
With 50 percent equity in his pocket, Stewart-Haas Racing was born.
Sponsors soon followed, along with the management team that would drive the company. Bobby Hutchens was brought in from Richard Childress Racing to serve as general manager, while Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson were hired as crew chiefs for Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman, respectively.
The team debuts Feb. 15 in the 51st Daytona 500, with Stewart and Newman driving Hendrick Motorsports cars, prepared by experienced crew chiefs.
The 2009 driver lineup for Stewart-Haas Racing is all new, but very familiar. There's a two-time Cup champion on the team letterhead and a guy who won the 2008 Daytona 500:
"When you haven't been a part of building a program like this, every day is a learning process," Stewart said. "And just being there to see it grow and to watch it happen every day, those are the things that make you proud."
For the program to succeed, it is imperative that Stewart remains focused on driving the No. 14 car. His willingness to delegate responsibility is vital.
"I have made it very clear to Bobby and Tony and Darian that when we show up on Thursdays, that when I go on the racetrack I'm a driver. That's it. I'm strictly a driver," Stewart said. "And it has to be that way.
"We have to have those people in place to fill in that ownership role while I'm doing it. I can't do both roles at the same time. I can be an owner four days a week, but the other three days a week, I have to be a driver. And that's the way I want it. That's the only way it will work."
Stewart chose Newman to man his second car. Both Indiana-bred racers share a similar, aggressive approach. To join SHR, Newman, the defending Daytona 500 champion, was forced to leave the man who made him -- Roger Penske. He noted that performance at the Penske organization had waned steadily for years. It was time for change.
"You can have the best people in the world and if you don't have the chemistry and the relationships to go along with it then you have -- I won't say nothing -- but then you don't have what you want," Newman said. "I look forward to starting that opportunity all over again.
"I kind of halfway quoted somebody, I don't remember the exact quote but the bottom line is it's impossible to start a new beginning but you can begin to start a new ending. I feel that is what I have in my career to be able to build on the things that I haven't accomplished and try to achieve those things with a group of people that is searching for the same thing."
Stewart admits to brief moments of weakness, spent questioning whether he can handle ownership. But he knows he made the right move.
"There's never been a moment where I second-guessed my decision," he said. "I've always been one of those guys that when I've made a decision, I've put myself at rest with that and gotten through that."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.