Charlotte: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART "I'll Take NASCAR Potpourri for a Thousand, Alex" KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 20, 2009) -- What if Alex Trebeck, the sharply dressed and astute host of the wildly successful quiz show Jeopardy!, worked for NASCAR in its PR department?...

TONY STEWART

"I'll Take NASCAR Potpourri for a Thousand, Alex"

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 20, 2009) -- What if Alex Trebeck, the sharply dressed and astute host of the wildly successful quiz show Jeopardy!, worked for NASCAR in its PR department? And as part of his duties, he emceed the standard post-race press conferences where the top-three finishers from the day's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event are available to the media?

Trebeck: "By finishing in the top-three, you all have automatically selected 'NASCAR Potpourri', so let's begin."

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, would do well--

Stewart: "I'll take 'NASCAR Potpourri' for a thousand, Alex."

Trebeck: "Very good. I am the last driver/owner to win a point-paying Sprint Cup race."

Stewart: "Who is Ricky Rudd?"

Trebeck: "Correct. We'll continue with 'NASCAR Potpourri' for $900. I am the last driver/owner to lead the Sprint Cup championship point standings."

Stewart: "Who is Alan Kulwicki?"

Trebeck: "Correct again. 'NASCAR Potpourri' for $800. I am the last driver/owner to win the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C."

Stewart: "That's easy, it's me."

Trebeck: "Oh, I'm sorry, while technically correct, you did not answer in the form of a question. No points for you."

That fictional banter segues into the fact that Stewart became the first driver/owner to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup-sanctioned event since Ricky Rudd won a points-paying race on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway when he led the final two laps of last Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. The win, however, wasn't a points-paying race, even though it paid over $1 million. So Stewart still has a 373-race winless streak to break for those with the moxie to become a driver/owner.

But if there's anyone who can do it, it's Stewart. The 11-year Sprint Cup driver is in his first year as a NASCAR team owner, yet one would hardly know it by glancing through his season statistics after 11 of 36 point-paying races.

The two-time Sprint Cup champion is showing championship form, despite the added responsibility of ownership. Stewart the driver is making Stewart the owner very happy, as his five top-fives -- all of which have been earned in the last six races -- along with his eight top-10s, have put Stewart second in the championship point standings, just 29 markers arrears series leader and four-time title-holder Jeff Gordon.

In addition to ending the 373-race winless streak for driver/owners, Stewart could also end another streak. It's been 555 races since a driver/owner last led the point standings, as Alan Kulwicki clinched the 1992 championship on Nov. 15 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. No other driver/owner has come close to emulating that kind of success since Stewart began knocking down top-fives this year.

Fresh off a win in last Saturday night's All-Star Race at Lowe's, Stewart is ready to tackle 600 miles of point-paying racing on the very same track. Recent history suggests Stewart will again be spraying champagne when the checkered flag drops, as Kasey Kahne won the All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600 last year. And beyond that bit of trivia are two other telling pieces of information--

* "It Ain't the Coca-Cola 595.5." -- Stewart was all set to win last year's Coca-Cola 600. He started 31st and led four times for 23 laps and was on his way to his second career, point-paying victory at Charlotte. But with a five-and-a-half second lead over second-place Kahne, a flat right-front tire three laps short of the finish relegated Stewart to an undeserved 18th-place result.

* Mears' First Win a "Gas" for Grubb -- Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing, guided Casey Mears to his first and only career Sprint Cup win by using savvy pit strategy to out-fuel the rest of the competition in the 2007 Coca- Cola 600. While triumphant for Grubb, the outcome was a bitter disappointment for Stewart, as he had led twice for 55 laps but had to give up the lead seven laps short of the 400-lap distance to re-fuel. As Grubb and Mears celebrated in victory lane, Stewart had to settle for sixth.

With Grubb and Stewart now working as one, their collective experiences have them poised for success in the longest race on the Sprint Cup schedule.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

Even though the two races take place on the same racetrack, how different is the All-Star Race from the Coca-Cola 600?

"We go from the shortest race of the year to the longest race of the year. The main difference, besides the distance, is that the Coke 600 starts in the daytime and ends at night, whereas the All-Star Race started at night. We go from a sprint race to an endurance race."

Since the Coca-Cola 600 is so long, have you ever had to take food during the race?

"I would love to have a Burger King drive thru about half-way, just to grab a snack. Maybe have eight or 10 extra caution laps to eat your dinner and go on, but I don't know that we'll get that. But we run so many 500 mile races that the extra 100 miles isn't that big of a deal. It is longer and this is a track that's not an easy track, physically. It's a fast racetrack, so it makes for a long night."

Has winning the All-Star Race and being second in points exceeded your expectations heading into this season?

"We didn't have expectations. That was the great thing. We literally sat down and said, 'We're going to take it a week at a time, do the best we can each weekend, come back on Monday, talk about what we did right, what we did wrong and see how we can make it better for the next weekend.' So, we didn't really set expectations. We've come to the racetrack with the attitude that we're going to try to go out there and win the race. We're going to the do the best we can, and what we have at the end of that weekend is what we've got and we're going to go home and figure out what we can do to make it better the next week."

Has the overall performance of Stewart-Haas Racing made focusing on the driving part of your job easier?

"It let's you focus on what you're doing. You're not worried about a different variable in the equation that you're trying to fix. It definitely gives you that much more flexibility and confidence knowing that all you have to do is go out and drive the racecar. I think from day one, we've had that confidence to begin with anyway, because Bobby Hutchens (director of competition) has done such a great job of coming in, taking over the owner role not only during the race weekends, but he's such a huge asset during the week of keeping everybody organized and making sure that we have the equipment that we need to go to the racetrack on the weekends. It's taken a lot of weight off of my shoulders to where all I've got to do is go out and do what I'm used to doing, and it's what I've done for 28 years, and that's go out and just drive the racecar."

How much has having Ryan Newman as a teammate helped, especially considering he's run well enough to climb to eighth in points?

"Quite a bit. The great thing is Ryan and I, personality-wise, we get along great. We're both passionate about the outdoors. We both love our dirt track racing. We're into old cars. There are so many things that are parallels for us. Anytime you can get a teammate like that, that you're on that level with, it just makes the communication better, it makes the understanding with each other that much better. I know when he's frustrated. I know what it's like and I know where he's coming from. We've got a similar feel. The great thing is that we feel a lot of the same things, but with his engineering background, he's so much smarter than I am. I feel like an idiot being around him because of his engineering degree and how's he's able to dissect a racecar and know exactly what every part of that racecar's doing and why. It's been a huge asset and a big help to me."

You've credited much of the success you've had this season to the people at Stewart-Haas Racing. Is it simply about having the right people in the right positions?

"That's very true, more so now than ever. And it's not just in racing that that's important. It's that way in business. It's that way in your life, whether it's your personal life or your professional life. That's the way it is, period. You have to have good people surrounding you. I learned that from Joe Gibbs. You can have the best of everything, but if you don't have these people in the right places doing the right jobs and people that you trust, that you know you don't have to look over, that's how you become efficient. The bigger key is that you know you have to have some of that luck on your side and you know that preparation leads to that, but when it comes to these people and the rules packages that we have now -- the rules are so tight that really, it's the people that make the difference. Everybody has the same cars. Everybody has good cars. You're not going to be in the Sprint Cup Series and have bad cars and expect to run well. You look at a Childress, a Hendrick, a Roush, Yates, Gibbs, everybody involved -- these guys aren't building bad racecars. And what makes the difference with guys that are running in the top-five every week are the people that are building the cars, the people that are doing that extra little bit and going that extra mile on attention to detail. That is how important it is and that is what the deciding factor is. It's not drivers and it's not fancy racecars. It's the guys that are putting the cars together, making sure that every time they go to the racetrack, they're exactly right, 100 percent. Not, 'Well, it's good enough for this weekend where we're going.' If you have that attitude, you're running 25th to 30th."

The management team that makes up Stewart-Haas Racing came from five different, top-tier race teams -- Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Championship Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Inc. How have you been able to meld all those different corporate philosophies into a new Stewart-Haas Racing philosophy?

"Well, I can't say it was by design, but I can say that it's been a benefit. Anytime that you can do that, you take Ryan, who's from Penske, and myself from Gibbs, you add that altogether and we've seen a lot of great things from a lot of those great organizations. You try to take the best things that you've seen from all of them and incorporate them into your own. That's kind of been a bonus for us, but that wasn't how the selection process went. It was more trying to hand pick people and, A.: see who was available and, B: see who we thought was going to be the right fit for the program, and that's where using my knowledge from Joe Gibbs Racing, knowing that Joe (Gibbs), J.D. (Gibbs), and Jimmy Makar -- they were so good at trying to find the right people that were going to be the right fit for the organization. It took time. Nobody came in one day, or in one phone call, and all the sudden we signed them up and said 'Hey, this is our guy.' It was spending two or three phone calls a week and a dozen meetings coming to the shop. Meetings where we were coming in at 11, 12 o'clock at night to keep the privacy of having these guys coming in without anybody knowing. Once we spent that time and got to know each other we realized, 'Hey, this is a guy that fits our philosophy and fits our mindset. This is a guy that's going to be right.' The hardest part was taking that time. But then, when you sit down on Mondays and you sit in our competition meeting, we talk about what we can do to get better. At the same time, we've got a lot of other organizations to reference from when we try to solve problems. There's a lot of depth to fall back on. When we have questions and when we have a problem where we have to find a solution, there's a lot of background notes, so to speak, to fall back on."

(Stewart came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, came from Hendrick Motorsports. Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate, came from Penske Championship Racing. Tony Gibson, Newman's crew chief, came from Dale Earnhardt Inc. And Bobby Hutchens, director of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, came from Richard Childress Racing.)

DARIAN GRUBB, Crew Chief of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

Even though it was a non-points race, how big was winning the All-Star Race for you and Stewart-Haas Racing? And what does it do to your expectations for the Coca-Cola 600?

"I think it's huge. Just for the last eight months every one of our guys have put in so much time at the shop and here at the racetrack, and being able to see their faces in victory lane was very special. I remember what it was like when I got my first win with Jimmie (Johnson in the 2006 Daytona 500) and actually understanding then what it's all about. When you're sitting there, the cameras are flashing and everything else, and you realize all that work you've put in, all the time you're away from your family, it just makes you appreciate everything so much more. I saw a lot of that in our guys after the All-Star Race, and a lot of tears, a lot of joy, a lot of pats on the back and hugs and everything else. That's what makes it all worthwhile for us to go out there and do this all the time, knowing all 150 people or so that had an input into that car -- all that effort did pay off.

"We've been running well every week. We finally got in victory lane. They know it's possible now. They saw what Tony can do as a driver and what we can accomplish as a team. So now we can come back and do it for 600 miles and the week after and the week after."

How has Tony been to work with?

"He's been great. It's pretty cool to be able to work with him Monday through Thursday. You come in there and he's the owner, and you have meetings with him, deciding what we're going to do, how we're going to run the company and what we're going to do with people and all of the equipment and things we're using. And then you go to the racetrack on Friday and he says, 'Alright, now you're my boss.' And Friday, Saturday and Sunday, that's the way it works. He shows up as a driver and drives his heart out, just like he showed this weekend.

"We're always working on our communication just because we have to learn each other's lingo. When he says he's loose, I need to know, how loose is loose? What do I need to work on and how far do I need to go with the adjustments? And we're still picking up on that every weekend. We're still kind of in our honeymoon phase. We haven't had those really bad weeks where we really struggled and missed the set-up, but that's part of the blessing of coming with the Hendrick Motorsports background and running the Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engines and the support we have. We don't lack for anything. So it's up to us to go out there and get those wins."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Kasey Kahne , Alex T , Alan Kulwicki
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing