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Rookie-Owner Stewart Knew Times Would Get Tough

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 1 2009
Tony Stewart got his first victory as an owner/driver at Pocono in June. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Tony Stewart got his first victory as an owner/driver at Pocono in June. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Kansas City, Kan. – Tony Stewart began nodding affirmatively well before the question was fully put to him on Wednesday. He’s been around racing, he’s been around the media and he knew almost immediately what he is about to be asked.

And he was ready with an answer.

Yes, Stewart said, the Sprint Cup team for which he is an owner/driver, is going through the first difficult period of its rookie campaign. And, no, he does not know why it has happened.

“Obviously,” Stewart said with a hint of exasperation in his voice, “if we knew what it was due to, we would have kept from happening in the first place.”

But Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, does have a pretty good idea about how to fix his team’s problems: Keep doing the things that had made him and his Stewart-Haas Racing program the biggest success story of the season.

“Just bad timing,” Stewart said of his team’s recent slump.

Very few things have gone badly for Stewart over the last 15 months or so. He entered the ranks of ownership by securing half of a team which has strong ties to Hendrick Motorsports, he attracted strong sponsorships for both his car and that of teammate Ryan Newman, he lured top-notch personnel like Newman as teammate, Darian Grubb as crew chief and Bobby Hutchens as manager of competition.

Still, debate raged about just how successful Stewart will be in his rookie year as an owner/driver. It’s a tough sport, most agreed. Some optimists think while a victory probably would not be in the cards, he might actually challenge for a spot in the Chase.

Stewart himself? He didn’t know what to expect. Becoming a Cup team owner was never played into his long-term plan. It just kind of happened, so, he didn’t even know how to define success.

Then the season started and it suddenly appeared that the optimists were not optimistic enough.

Stewart finished eighth at Daytona. And then he was eighth again the next week at Fontana. Three weeks later, he was on the podium with a third-place finish at Martinsville.

And then came a remarkable month of June. With a runner-up finish at Dover on the final day of April, Stewart moved to the points lead. The next race, at Pocono, Stewart got his first victory of the season.

It all seemed so easy.

Was he shocked by all that success?

“You know better than to ask that,” Stewart said.

We’ll take that as a yes.

What he was not shocked by what happened next and that would be a return to earth.

Stewart finished 17th at Michigan the week after Pocono and then would not post another top-10 until last weekend when he was ninth at Dover.

This weekend at the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway, Stewart start the race as the fifth-place driver. He will be 106 points behind leader Mark Martin.

He will not, however, be wearing a dazed look. Nor will anybody else on his team.

“You’ve got to remember, this is still an organization that at the beginning of the year, Gene (Haas) just wanted his cars to finish on the lead lap each week,” Stewart said. “And now he’s got two cars in the Chase. And there are guys (on the team) that have never been in the Chase before.

“So the attitude in the shop has been great. We preach the big picture. They all knew there were going to be some hurdles to clear this year and it went better than average, better than we expected. And I kept reminding these guys, hey, we’re going to stumble at some point but stumbling is not the problem. It’s how soon can we recover.

“You know, I thought I would have to be more of a cheerleader than I have been. A lot of these people, it’s the first time there having any kind of success. They’re on a high. They’ve been on a high all year and that’s made it easier. If Jimmie Johnson was third in the points right now, you would absolutely have to work hard to keep them pumped up right now because they’d be devastated because of their past three years. But this is a group that hasn’t had any success and it seem like they’ve won the lottery.”

The hope, of course, is that Stewart will not even need to think of becoming a cheerleader, that the team can rediscover its early-season magic and do it starting this weekend.

If it does, well, then Stewart won’t have to answer that goofy question again.

“We’re still fifth in the points, we’re still within striking distance. If we put together eight good weeks we can still get this done, even if they (those in front of him) have eight good weeks,” Stewart said.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 1 2009