Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stewart Haas ahead of schedule

Tony Stewart isn't an owner-driver in the same vein as Ricky Rudd back in the 1990s or even Robby Gordon today. He doesn't go at it largely on his own, building his own equipment and compiling his own resources. Stewart, who now owns 50 percent of the team that was once Haas-CNC Racing after winning two NASCAR Sprint Cup championships with Joe Gibbs Racing, gets a lot of his equipment from Hendrick Motorsports.

But that doesn't make what he did Sunday at Pocono -- and really, what he's done all season -- any less impressive. Naysayers will instantly point to the connection to Hendrick Motorsports, conveniently forgetting that the team was receiving Hendrick engines and chassis long before Stewart took over.

Last year, Haas-CNC's two cars had Hendrick equipment ... and struggled to stay in the Top 35 in owner points. With Scott Riggs and Johnny Sauter behind the wheel, the No. 66 and No. 70 were struggling just to make races. The equipment was there, but the personnel and the professional know-how weren't.

Fast-forward to this year. Stewart Haas Racing still gets Hendrick engines and chassis, but look at the biggest differences. Riggs and Sauter are out; Stewart and Ryan Newman are now the drivers. Add an expert engineering mind in Darian Grubb as Stewart's crew chief, throw in longtime Richard Childress Racing mastermind Bobby Hutchens as competition director and sprinkle in a few more strong engineering minds, and what you have is one impressive -- and surprisingly quick -- turnaround.

This team has always had the Hendrick support; it just never really knew what to do with it. Sponsorship dollars also are not to be overlooked; whereas Riggs and Sauter couldn't command high-end sponsorship dollars, Stewart -- and by extention, Newman -- can. When Stewart announced this deal, he almost immediately brought in such sponsors as Office Depot, Old Spice, the U.S. Army and Burger King.

In NASCAR, sponsorship dollars go a long way, especially when one considers how hard they are to come by these days.

At the end of the day, though, NASCAR is a people business. Sure, fast cars will win you races, but those cars don't magically appear out of thin air. People have to build them. Tires don't change themselves, and fuel tanks don't instantly refill; people do that. There are hundreds of people who put in thousands of hours of hard work back at the shop during the week who hardly ever actually get to go to the track, and their efforts have as much to do with a team's success as the drivers.

Of course, having Stewart and Newman as drivers certainly doesn't hurt.

One of the reasons Joe Gibbs has been so successful as a car owner was because of his commitment to people. Hiring high-quality people of character and getting them to buy into the company philosophy; it's a process that's yielded three Sprint Cup trophies over the past decade. Even if there are combustible personalities within the organization, Gibbs knows how to massage them and balance them with calmer influences. The sometimes-childish Kyle Busch is balanced out by crew chief Steve Addington, much the way a younger, more firey Stewart was countered by the steady Greg Zippadeli.

Stewart learned his lesson well from the decade he spent driving for the former NFL coach; people are what make a successful race team. Stewart made all the right moves once he decided to take over Haas-CNC, tagging Hutchens and Grubb, among others, to work for him.

Grubb in particular was a master pick-up. A longtime Hendrick employee and Virginia Tech graduate, Grubb gives the team a voice who knows what to do with the equipment Hendrick gives them. Grubb has proven himself as a crew chief, winning the 2006 Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson after Chad Knaus was suspended for a violation. Grubb was also a proven engineering mind, serving much of last season in an advisory capacity with the No. 88 car. Before Grubb left to prepare for his job with Stewart Haas, Grubb helped Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a top-three points position.

Anyone care to guess how the No. 88's done since Grubb left? And do you think RCR misses Hutchens?

Stewart's been money behind the wheel as well, picking up 10 top-10 finishes in the season's first 14 races. On top of his first points-paying win at Pocono, Stewart has racked up seven top-5 finishes in his last nine races; such consistency is the way to winning a title, even with the Chase for the Cup was introduced back in 2004.

Stewart holds a 71-point lead over Jeff Gordon, becoming the first owner-driver since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to lead the points; Kulwicki won the championship that season in a classic duel with Bill Elliott and Davey Allison. Stewart has only led the point standings twice before in his career: 2002 and 2005. Both years, he went on to win the championship.

Oh, Stewart also won the Sprint All-Star Race last month.

Not to be forgotten, Newman has catapulted himself to fourth in the standings. His more recent struggles at Penske Racing long forgotten, the engineering graduate from Purdue has five top-5 finishes in his last six races. His worst finish in that stretch was an eighth-place run at Dover.

Can either driver win the championship this season? I think so, and what an accomplishment it would be. Hendrick equipment and support notwithstanding, for Stewart to take an organization that once hoped to make races and turn it into a company that expects to wind up in Victory Lane every week is nothing to sneeze at.

A lot of people thought Stewart crazy, even stupid, to leave Gibbs and go out on his own like this, but the two-time champion is proving it can be done, and he's having a ball in the process. I'm not sure if this will start a trend in the Sprint Cup Series, particularly with the economy as weak as it is, but what Stewart's doing deserves the appropriate praise.

And if I'm the competition, I'm taking notice. This team is for real.

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