Daytona 500: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART: "The Boss Needs to See You... Now!" DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 8, 2009) -- Beginning with a press conference on July 10, 2008 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Tony Stewart has talked a lot about becoming a driver/owner in...

TONY STEWART: "The Boss Needs to See You... Now!"

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 8, 2009) -- Beginning with a press conference on July 10, 2008 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Tony Stewart has talked a lot about becoming a driver/owner in the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. In 2009, Stewart-Haas Racing is his team and the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS is his car.

But like a Christmas present waiting under the tree for weeks before Christmas actually arrived, Stewart has had to wait for Daytona Speedweeks to begin at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway to finally unwrap the present he's coveted since announcing at Chicagoland that he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing -- the only team he had ever known in his 12 years as a NASCAR driver -- to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world.

Stewart has done countless interviews, participated in numerous photo shoots and acted in a variety of commercials for his new partners at Stewart-Haas Racing.

While all worthwhile, the wait has been agonizing. The more Stewart talked about the upcoming season, the more he wanted it to begin. The boss needed to get to his office.

The 2.5-mile oval that is Daytona International Speedway is Stewart's office, and walking tall in his new red firesuit, Stewart's carries a big stick by way of his No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet.

A 12-time winner at Daytona in Sprint Cup, the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the defunct IROC Series, Stewart is still in search of that highly coveted Daytona 500 victory. He came tantalizingly close last year, leading four times for 16 laps, only to lose the lead on the last lap to his current Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman.

That disappointment is in Stewart's rearview mirror. However, it still provides motivation for the two-time Sprint Cup champion to claim the Daytona 500's Harley J. Earl trophy, second in prestige only to the Sprint Cup championship trophy.

That quest begins anew in 2009, and it's one Stewart can finally quit talking about. Daytona is here, and the 61st Sprint Cup season has begun.

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

Before last year's Daytona 500, you said that you'd cross the finish line on your roof if it meant winning. After coming so close last year, is it possible to want to win this race any more than you already did?

"I don't think so. I don't think after last year you could ever want it worse. The good thing is that since the cars are paid for and since I'm the one that paid for them, I don't care if there is nothing left but me when I slide across the line. All I care about is that we get it. I don't care if the car's destroyed when I come across the line. I don't care if we have to physically take it in on a flatbed to Daytona USA Monday morning and slide it off onto that little stage. That's what we want."

What made you want to have Ryan Newman as your teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing?

"It wasn't like we looked at the whole list of drivers and said, 'Well, we can pick this guy or that guy or this guy or that guy.' It was a select group of people. But when we sat and talked to Ryan about all of this, I left the meeting saying this is our guy, we've got to get him. Something that really impressed me during the whole process of getting him hired and going through the contract negotiations was that he never once brought up money, salary or percentages of anything. All he cares about is winning races and what we're going to do to give him the equipment he needs so that he can be competitive and have a shot at winning each weekend. That was all he ever asked. And when Ryan says 'There's something I don't like' or 'There's something I need changed,' he's really good at giving you a reason why. It's not just a request. He has the facts to justify it to where you don't have to sit there and go, 'Why is he wanting that?' He answers those questions for you and you have the ability to make those kinds of decisions quicker.

And the more time we've spent together, the more I know he's the right fit for this team. When we got a chance to go to New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway in January and run together and have a chance to talk to each other about our cars, it felt like we had worked together before, even though we never have. I think that's because of our backgrounds. Our interests are similar -- at the track, away from the track -- and I think we both have that same passion and desire to win. I think that's what's going to make Ryan and I a great combination as teammates."

You're using a new carbon-fiber seat this year. How do you like it?

"That was why it was really important to go down to New Smyrna and get a feel for the new carbon-fiber seat. That was basically Darian's (Grubb, crew chief) decision. He said, 'I'm not bolting an aluminum seat in your car.' He pretty much left the decision process out of it for me. It was, we are going to try it, and not only are we going to try it, we're going to figure out how to make it work. I was pleasantly surprised. As odd as it's going to sound, and nobody will believe me, but my bottom half of the seat and the top half of the seat, it's a Jimmie Johnson shell. I got in it and said, 'Yeah, it's comfortable.' It's been really comfortable right off the bat, and once we got the steering wheel in the right spot at New Smyrna, it felt like any other seat. It was very comfortable."

With very little "off" time this off-season, do you feel that Stewart-Haas Racing is ready to start the season?

"We got a later start than everybody because of how many different people came from so many different teams, and by the time you get them all there and get the direction with everybody, you're well into December. But I was at Joe Gibbs Racing a couple of days before we left to come down here and they were still thrashing too, and that's a team that's been established for well over 10 years and they're still in the same boat. It's that way every year, so it made me feel better that our guys have really done a good job of getting caught up in such a short time."

How much time did you get to spend in Indiana during the off-season?

"I think I spent 10 days or 11 days there. But I was comfortable with that. I think I took eight or nine days off in a row after Homestead and went home. But after the second day I was there, I was already itching to get back down to the shop. It wasn't that I felt guilty about not being there, I just wanted to be there and wanted to see what was going on and wanted to start this learning process. It's honestly been the most fun off-season I've ever had. I had the best Christmas I've ever had. It's just been fun. I've really enjoyed it."

What did you learn from Joe Gibbs as an owner that you're applying to Stewart-Haas Racing?

"To get good people. When you hire the right people to do the right jobs and you let them do their jobs, it's good."

What's the sense of accomplishment been like to see your team grow?

"When you haven't been a part of building a program like this, every day is a learning process. Just being there to see it grow and to watch it happen every day -- those are the things that make you proud. When you go into the shop one day and you see eight brand new chassis and you see them sit there for a week before they get caught up to get to them, and then all of a sudden you see chassis start disappearing and getting into the fab shop, that's the process where I don't know whether we were on schedule or not on schedule. For me, it's going up and talking to Bobby Hutchens (director of competition) and saying, 'Are we all right here? Are we on schedule? Are we behind and are we going to be caught up when it's time to go?' And it's just having those guys there and having them to lean on and learn from that has made it better."

How do you separate the time when you need to be a driver and when you need to be an owner?

"I've made it very clear to Bobby (Hutchens) and Tony (Gibson, crew chief for Newman) and Darian (Grubb, crew chief for Stewart) that when I go on the racetrack, I'm a driver. That's it. I'm strictly a driver. And it has to be that way. We have to have those people in place to fill in that ownership roll while I'm doing my thing as a driver. I can't do both rolls 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."

Did you ever consider that owning a team may take away from the driving experience?

"No, not at all. I drove the Chili Bowl for myself and it added to the experience. I've been an owner since 2001 and I've loved every bit of it. There was never a part of the process where I thought, well, this might take away from being a driver. I think the majority of that is because I know that on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, that's all I am -- a driver. I'm sticking to my guns on that. That's what I do on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I drive the racecar. Darian (Grubb) and Bobby (Hutchens) and Tony Gibson are my bosses on the weekend. Those are the people I work for. And then Monday morning, we go back and work as a team together and figure out what we need to do to be better."

Since you've become a NASCAR team owner, have you had any middle-of-the-night-oh-my God-what-did-I-get-myself-into moments?

"Absolutely, every other night there's a moment I wake up and say that with Eldora Speedway, with my World of Outlaw teams and my USAC teams. But as scary as it probably should be, it hasn't been. I've been really comfortable with everything that we've done so far, and I think a lot of that is the fact I feel like I have good people around me. I feel I have people that I can trust. Everything they do is in our best interest as an organization, and they know how I feel about how important family is and how much of an emphasis I've put on that with this race team. When you have guys around you that understand your philosophy and understand your mindset, it takes a lot of that fear away so when you do go to bed at night you can relax a little bit."

Are comfortable with being the boss?

"I don't even view myself as the boss, honestly. I feel like I'm just one of the other guys at the shop. I walk in there and I'm their driver. I may have my name on the building and it may be my race team, but we're all here for the same reason. So with that, it makes it a more relaxed atmosphere, and I think that's why the guys smile when I come in the shop and wave every day is because I don't walk through there beating my chest like I'm some big, special guy or anything. I'm treated as one of the guys, and that's the way they treat me."

What's the best piece of advice you've received from another owner?

"It's been set your budget and stick to it. That's probably been the biggest thing that I've been told by multiple car owners, and I think there's a lot of validity to what they're saying. That's been an issue that probably every car owner has had to go through almost every year of their career as an owner. That's something they've all been very, very adamant about. You take that advice and run with it."

Do you feel like you can compete for a championship this year?

"I honestly don't know what to expect. I wish I had that magical answer. As a driver, trying to keep your sponsors and team pumped up, you're supposed to say, 'Yeah, I feel like I can win the championship.' But I don't know what those expectations should be and I don't know what realistic goals I should have. I just know that every week, we'll go out and give 100 percent and when we leave at the end of the day, as long as we feel like we've gotten 100 percent out of ourselves that day, then that's going to be good enough for that day. And then on Monday morning, we're going to try to figure out what we can do to make it better for the next week. I think that's about as realistic as you can get."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing