Stewart-Haas Racing has exceeded expectations
Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
At the start of this season, many were skeptical about Tony Stewart's foray into team ownership in the Sprint Cup Series.
But Stewart has since silenced the critics and fellow competitors alike. He sits second in the championship standings - just 29 points behind leader Jeff Gordon - and teammate Ryan Newman holds the eighth spot.
Stewart announced last July he would leave Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the 2008 season and merge with Haas-CNC Racing to serve as both driver and co- owner of the newly-formed Stewart Haas Racing.
In the months that followed, he restructured the two-car stable by adding Newman as his teammate and hiring other key personnel. Darian Grubb left Hendrick Motorsports to become Stewart's new crew chief, while Tony Gibson came over from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to guide Newman's efforts. Bobby Hutchens joined as the team's director of competition after spending many years at Richard Childress Racing.
It wasn't a rosy beginning for Stewart's new organization, with Newman having a horrible Speedweeks at Daytona in February. He wrecked his primary car in the second qualifying race and then crashed his backup car in final practice for the Daytona 500. Stewart also destroyed his primary vehicle when he ran into Newman during the practice session.
Tony Stewart has silenced the critics and competitors alike.
Newman, who won the 2008 Daytona for Penske Racing, finished 36th in this year's race in the backup car intended for the following event at California. He continued to struggle in the early season, holding the 32nd spot in points after Atlanta in March. But Newman has gained momentum with five top-10 finishes, including three straight top-fives, in the last seven races.
Stewart, meanwhile, has remained in the top-10 in points since his eighth- place run at Daytona. He has finished second in two of the last four races.
"When we started this deal, on paper, this was the way it was supposed to work," Stewart said. "But to have it actually happen like this, it's been amazing."
Both drivers are now likely to qualify for this year's "Chase for Sprint Cup" championship.
Last year, Haas CNC Racing's two teams finished 30th and 43rd in owner points, but Stewart's addition has significantly improved the organization into one of the top current contenders in NASCAR's top-tier circuit.
"For something that should be extremely stressful, it has been extremely relaxing and a lot of fun at the same time," Stewart said. "I have had fun watching our organization grow. I have had fun watching all these people come in from different organizations and make this company what it is right now."
When Stewart picks up his next Cup victory, which is likely soon, he will become the first driver and owner to win in the series since Ricky Rudd accomplished the feat in September 1998 at Martinsville.
Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, has 33 career victories, and has won at every track on the circuit except California, Las Vegas and Darlington, where he finished a career-best third on Saturday.
Newman's next win could soon be on the horizon as well.
"We are knocking on the door, and we're going to get there," Newman said. "We're improving every week."
In his nine years with Penske, Newman posted 13 wins, including a series-high eight victories during the 2003 season. He has also accumulated 43 poles so far.
Stewart-Haas Racing's early success can be greatly attributed to their ties with Hendrick Motorsports. One of Stewart's priorities with his new team was to form an alliance with Hendrick for chassis, engine and technical support.
The partnership between Hendrick and Stewart has apparently worked well.
"It's a great help," said Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson. "For a lot of years Haas has been there, has been a part of Hendrick Motorsports, helping us in a variety of ways, working together. And now to have Tony and Ryan and the depth that they have in their race team, it's really great."
Johnson, the three-time defending series champion, was one of many drivers who thought Stewart was over his head in taking on the additional role as owner, and have since reconsidered.
"I think everybody looked at the start of the year, including myself, and thought Tony was crazy for what he was starting to do," he said. "Tony has put his heart and soul into it, done an awesome job, and it's paying off."
Johnson is attempting to win his record fourth straight title this year, but the way things have shaped up, Stewart and Newman could prevent that from happening.