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Zen and the art of transforming a NASCAR team

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Tony Stewart might well be on his way to becoming NASCAR's "Zen Master," much like Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson is in the NBA.

Stewart has taken a holistic approach to team ownership in the Sprint Cup Series, and it's paid off so far with his first victory in just his 14th start as driver and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. He also won the all-star race, a non-points event, last month at Charlotte.

Since announcing his foray into team ownership in NASCAR's top-tier circuit last July, Stewart has had the difficult task of radically transforming Haas CNC Racing from a fledging two-car operation into a perennial powerhouse.

"The hardest part for me was last fall," Stewart said. "That was the most stressful part of it for me...getting these key people in place. That part was not easy and has not been easy from my standpoint this year."

Tony Stewart has had the difficult task of radically transforming Haas CNC Racing.
Helping his team hit its stride has been a challenge as well.

"I've just got to spend the time being the cheerleader during the week," he added.

Stewart has placed several key personnel within his new organization, including the hiring of crew chief Darian Grubb and Bobby Hutchens as director of competition. Engine support from Hendrick Motorsports has also been a vital key in the team's early success.

Ryan Newman joined Stewart as his teammate at SHR. Right now, Stewart sits atop the championship standings with a 71-point lead, while Newman occupies the fourth position after holding a spot outside the top-30 in the early season.

Stewart had to start the Pocono 500 from the rear of the field, in his backup car, after wrecking in Saturday's practice session. He stretched his fuel long enough at the end to become the first driver/owner to win a Cup race since Ricky Rudd did it in the 1998 fall race at Martinsville.

During a post-race news conference, Stewart was asked which had been easier for him - becoming a team owner and changing it into a championship-caliber organization or winning a race after starting last in your backup car.

His response, "Both of them seem pretty easy, but I know it's not. Neither one of them are easy and they are both difficult and they both are because of hard work.

"It's easy when you've got the tools in place, and that's something that (team co-owner) Joe (Custer) has given us from the start is anything that we needed, and the tools were there when I got there. It's just a matter of finding some key people to help tie up the loose ends so to speak."

Stewart is clearly not taking anything for granted. After a short celebration at Pocono, Stewart and his crew, who might get half-a-day off of work each week, headed to Virginia International Raceway in Alton, VA on Monday to prepare for the season's first road course race in Sonoma, CA later this month. He said his team planned to arrive at VIR early in the morning, but admitted he's not punctual when it comes to testing.

"Well, nine o'clock in the morning, I'll probably be waking up," he said. "I won't be there on time. I'm never on time for a test."

"Smoke," a nickname Stewart earned in his early racing career, has been in motorsports for 29 years so far, and in that time, the 38-year-old has achieved two championships in the NASCAR Cup Series and one in the IndyCar Series, as well as titles in USAC Midget, Sprint Car and Silver Crown. He has also garnered titles as a World of Outlaws team owner with drivers Danny Lasoski and Donny Schatz.

While Jackson is on the cusp of winning his record 10th NBA title as a coach, Stewart is setting a course to becoming the first driver/owner to win a Cup championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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