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Stewart Makes Right Moves As Driver And Owner

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 26 2012

Tony Stewart is off to a fast start with a team that is vastly different from that of a year ago. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

The driving thing? That’s been Tony Stewart’s hook during his racing career. That ability to wheel USAC, Indy and stock cars along side the very best who’ve ever been. It’s won him championships, it’s won him headlines.

But what’s now grabbing attention, and what may ultimately define Stewart’s life in racing, are his management skills. Because despite his insistence on promoting himself as just a little old country boy from farm country in Indiana, Stewart has proven to be a top-flight manager of race logistics, business operations and, especially, talent.

He’s Junior Johnson sans the bib overalls.

The most recent showcasing of Stewart’s overall skills as a racer came over the weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

As usual, the driving thing was in evidence. On the big, wide, flat 2-mile ACS oval, Stewart searched for and found the proper racing groove. He rolled out an interesting handful of impressive moves and passes and at the end of the day made trip No. 46 to victory lane in a Sprint Cup car.

What was also very interesting was the fact that Stewart, notoriously a slow starter in his previous 13 seasons as a Sprint Cup driver, got his second victory in five races this year.

Asked if he has ever started a season so well, Stewart said, “Not in this series. It’s been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have. Like you said, the history shows in the last 13 years we have not had

Tony Stewart eases past Juan Pablo Montoya during Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

the strongest starts the first third of the year. I’m really, really excited about the start that we’ve got going.”

And while the two victories are interwoven with three non-top-10 finishes, Stewart and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team have ran well in almost all of its starts this season.

“We’ve been strong everywhere we’ve been,” Stewart said. “I mean, Daytona was probably our weakest race, and I know I made decisions trying to make things happen, and didn’t work out, but it wasn’t because our cars weren’t good. We’ve had top 10 cars and top 5 cars every race this year after that.”

Which all points to Stewart’s skills as a team owner.

Asked why he is off to the good start, Stewart pointed to new crew chief Steve Addington. And he pointed to partner Gene Haas. And he pointed to the other faceless folks he has added to his team since he decided to launch it prior to the 2009 season.

Quite simply, Stewart makes good moves as a manager. He always has. He did it on his sprint car teams, which are perennial contenders in the World of Outlaws and USAC – Tony Stewart Racing has 13 championships in those series. He did it as a short track owner.

He recruits good people and puts them in a position to succeed. If they don’t, he has shown a manager’s willingness to make painful changes.

Stewart has not been slow to make painful changes in his WoO and USAC teams.

He made two very painful changes in Cup in 2011 when he first let Bobby Hutchens go as competition director midway through the season and then, late in the season, when he decided to let Darian Grubb go as crew chief for the No. 14 car.

Many did not understand Grubb firing. Together, Stewart and Grubb won five Chase races last season and then the Cup championship. They won 11 races together in three years.

The entire story of the Stewart-Grubb split may or may not have been about competition. But whatever, it was made. And Addington was brought aboard.

Addington knew he was getting a good job. And he knew enough to not do too much. He did things just right.

“To see somebody like Steve come into the organization through the winter,” Stewart said after winning in Fontana on Sunday, “learn a whole new group of people, a whole pit crew. A lot of times when crew chiefs change race teams, they bring the whole team with them. Steve came by himself to our organization and had to learn a whole different group of guys to work with. I think he’s settled in quickly and really gets along good with our guys, learned our system really quick.

“He brings so much to the table. We’ve learned a lot from him. He’s made great adjustments through the off-season and those results are showing right now.”

Stewart took his time getting the right person to replace Hutchens. In the off season, Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s old crew chief and media liaison officer from the Joe Gibbs Racing championship days was brought in.

And Stewart is now 2 for 5.

“It was a long off-season. To watch these guys work that hard, it’s nice to end the year on a high note like we did, and to be able to come out of the box and carry that momentum with a new competition director and new crew chief, I think it shows the depth of our program and our group of guys back at our shop.”

It also shows Stewart’s skills back at the office.

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 26 2012
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