Stewart-Haas Racing: 2009 Season in Review
Inaugural Year of Operation Exceeds Expectations and Raises the Bar for 2010
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Dec. 2, 2009) -- Few, if any, could've imagined that a startup NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race team built on the foundation of Haas CNC Racing could win five races, score two poles, compile 14 top-threes, 20 top-fives, 38 top-10s, rack up 628 laps led and place all of its teams in the elite Chase for the Championship. Yet, that's exactly what Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) did in its inaugural year of operation.
The 2009 season brought back the aura of the driver/owner, as Tony Stewart accomplished what hadn't been done by a driver/owner in nearly 20 years -- win races and contend for the championship.
He and teammate Ryan Newman ended the season tied for completing the most laps of all drivers -- 10,468 laps completed (99.8 percent), missing only 24 laps. Their nearest pursuer in this category was David Reutimann, who missed 84 laps.
That consistency allowed both drivers to secure spots in the 12-driver Chase, automatically putting them in championship contention. And while the two drivers finished sixth and ninth, respectively, in the season-ending point standings, their rank is not indicative of their season-long body of work.
Stewart, in his 11th year of Sprint Cup competition but first as a driver/owner, carried the mantle at SHR behind the wheel of his No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala. Top-10 finishes early in the year quickly led to top-five results, which segued to 11 podium finishes between rounds six and 22 of the 36-race schedule.
The breakthrough win came on May 16 when Stewart won the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C. That spark set a fire, for Stewart would go on to win four point-paying Sprint Cup races -- Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in June, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in July, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in August and Kansas Speedway in Kansas City in October. Fanning the flames was Stewart's rise to the top of the championship point standings, as he took the point lead May 31 following a second-place finish at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. He held the top spot for 13 straight races until the Chase in September, where the points were reshuffled and Stewart was seeded second.
By taking the point lead and winning at Pocono, Stewart ended two long and unceremonious streaks for driver/owners.
It had been 556 races since the last driver/owner led the championship point standings -- Alan Kulwicki on Nov. 15, 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway when Kulwicki clinched the championship by 10 points over Bill Elliott. And it had been 375 races since the last driver/owner won a Sprint Cup race -- Ricky Rudd on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Stewart obliterated both marks in the span of a week.
Newman, meanwhile, was forced to play from behind after early-season misfortune left him a precarious 32nd in points entering round five at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. But like a football team that mounts a comeback after halftime, Newman and Co. responded with a solid seventh-place finish at the rough and tumble short track. They then rattled off seven top-10 finishes over the next 10 races, catapulting the No. 39 U.S. Army/Haas Automation team up the championship standings to fourth by the time the series rolled into Brooklyn's Michigan International Speedway in June. Along the way, Newman scored the first pole for SHR on May 21 when he set fast time in qualifying for the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. He would grab another pole later in the year in the series' return trip to Martinsville to nab his 45th career Sprint Cup pole.
"I'm like a proud father," said Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Oxnard, Calif.-based Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world. "Gene Haas (CEO, Haas Automation) is the one that started all this and he's the one that's given us all the tools and opportunities to do what we're doing. It's nice to be able to show him the results of what he's built. I've been able to come in and kind of tie the loose ends together for him. It's been neat to see over the last 13 months how this has all come together and progressed through the season.
"I feel like for a first-year team, I have to give us an 'A'. If we could've won the championship, you would give yourself an 'A+', but for a first-year team an 'A' or an 'A-' is appropriate for what had to do to come together in such a short amount of time. There was a lot of change for everyone who came to Stewart-Haas, and to get all the people organized, get them working together, along with getting all of our equipment ready, I think we did fairly well, and from that standpoint, I don't think I could be any happier.
"Obviously, we wanted to win the championship this year and after leading the point standings, we felt like we had a good shot. We just couldn't get that run in the last 10 weeks that we wanted. But we'll do whatever we can next year to try and pick up on that and improve on it."
"Making the Chase was a dream come true," added Newman, who made the Chase for the third time in his career after a three-year absence. "To think back to Daytona where we basically went through three racecars and to climb all the way back after 26 races to make the Chase -- it says a lot about the hard work that everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing has put into this effort.
"We really didn't know what to expect coming into this season. People asked about our expectations and our goals -- and we had some goals -- but we didn't know what the expectations would be. And people said it looked like a risk to leave Penske Racing, but to me, Stewart-Haas Racing looked like an opportunity. Yeah, there was risk associated with it, but it was an opportunity.
"We achieved a lot, but we're not totally satisfied either, and that's because we're not sitting at the head table in Las Vegas this year. Still, we've done a lot of great things as an organization. We've done a lot of great things as drivers to get to where we are, and for me personally, to make the big change, and obviously Tony as well in leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to do this, we didn't have any idea what to expect. We just knew that we wanted to go out there and have fun, and if we had fun, we were going to be successful one way or another."
Entering 2010, expectations are now set at SHR. The organization knows its can win races, poles and contend for the championship. The element of surprise is gone. Gained, however, is knowledge, and lots of it. With a year of success under its collective belt, SHR can take its notes from this past season's grind and formulate them into a foundation of information that did not exist this time last year. Knowledge is power in the elite Sprint Cup Series, and SHR has plenty of mind power to augment its horsepower.