DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Driving race cars has been the focus of Tony Stewart’s entire NASCAR career.
It’s not that simple anymore.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion showed up at Daytona International Speedway last week with a smile on his face, a bounce in his step — and a whole lot more responsibility on his shoulders.
After 10 years driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart took the leap into team ownership, becoming owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing, the team formerly operated as Haas CNC Racing and owned by Stewart’s new partner, Gene Haas.
Stewart and new teammate Ryan Newman will launch the new-look team’s Cup chase in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“Obviously there are nights when you go, ‘Can I handle this?’ But there’s never been a moment where I second-guessed my decision,” Stewart said last week before taking the track for the first time in his new No. 14 Chevrolet. “I’ve always been one of those guys that when I’ve made a decision, I’ve put myself at rest with that and gotten through that.”
Some current and former car owners say Stewart is going to need all of that resolve before he’s through.
“No matter how prepared you are, or how in line you think you are, there’s going to be things you don’t anticipate,” said Michael Waltrip, who started a three-car Cup team from scratch in 2007 while continuing his driving career.
Longtime driving star Ricky Rudd, also an owner/driver for several years, said Stewart’s fame and reputation will help his team get off the ground. But after that, it will be on-track performance that makes or breaks his future as an owner.
“If he goes to lackluster performances and there’s nothing there, the name will only carry you so far,” Rudd said. “His name will open the doors and I think he’ll be OK, but he’s not going to be any different than any other team in this business. It really gets back to performance to solidify the thing long-term and keep the money coming in.”
Most people are confident Stewart, who has owned his own World of Outlaws team since 2001, will make a go of it, particularly with support from elite team owner Rick Hendrick, who is providing engines, cars and technical help to Stewart-Haas.
“Rick Hendrick is committed to the deal,” said Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion and a former owner/driver. “That in itself is an endorsement. I had that in the beginning of my deal. Rick was on board and I had engines, I got help and I won races. But as soon as I said ‘I don’t need that any more,’ I never won another race.
“So that alliance, that platform, that foundation that he has, I can’t imagine they won’t do pretty good. I don’t think they’re going to fall flat on their face.”
Stewart loves the idea of being a team owner, but at 37, he still thinks of himself as mostly a driver.
To make that possible, Stewart has hired an all-star cast at Stewart-Haas, including director of competition Bobby Hutchens, former Hendrick engineer Darian Grubb as his crew chief, and former Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew chief Tony Gibson to fill the same role for Newman.
“I have made it very clear to Bobby and Tony and Darian that when we show up (at the track) on Thursdays, that when I go on the racetrack I’m a driver. That’s it,” Stewart said. “And it has to be that way. We have to have those people in place to fill in that ownership role while I’m doing it. I can’t do both roles at the same time.
“I can be an owner four days a week, but the other three days a week I have to be a driver. That’s the only way it will work.”
Longtime owner/driver Richard Petty isn’t so sure that will work out for Stewart.
“I was looking at how many different businesses or associations he’s involved with,” stock car’s winningest driver said. “He’s not going to have time for the race car. All he’s got to do is take one call a day from all those ventures and he’s not going to have time to think about the race car.
“This is going to be big on his mind right now. He’s going to have to put all that (other) stuff (aside). The deal with Tony, it’s how he comes out the first three or four races. If he comes out running wide open and everything’s falling together, then he’s going to be all right. But it can get real frustrating real quick, and knowing Tony, I think he could get frustrated.”
Hendrick has no such concerns.
“He will be great. I believe Tony Stewart is going to make the Chase (for the championship), and I believe Tony Stewart will win a race,” said Hendrick, whose team has won three straight championships with Jimmie Johnson and eight of the last 14 overall.
“I’ve talked to him a lot, and he’s over in his shop and he’s working. He’s in our shop, our engine shop, our chassis shop. He’s on it. I never dreamed that he would be that involved.”
Hendrick called Stewart “the perfect car owner,” and said the partnership with Haas “couldn’t have been a better fit.”
“You probably couldn’t write a script any better,” Hendrick continued. “If Tony was the kind of guy who wanted to live out of town and had other interests, or was married and had family, it probably would be a hard deal. But he’s such a single-minded racer that this is a challenge.
“He’ll tell you he’s scared to death. But I told him, ‘You are too good and you’ve got too many good people.’ I told him, ‘You’ll have some hiccups but, if you stick with it, you’re going to do great.’ “
Stewart said he really doesn’t know what to expect.
“As a driver that’s trying to keep your sponsors and team pumped up, you’re supposed to say, ‘Yeah, I feel like I can win the championship.’ But I don’t know what those expectations should be and I don’t know what realistic goals should be,” Stewart said. “I just know that every week, we’ll go out and give 100 percent and … on Monday morning, we’re going to try to figure out what we can do to make it better for the next week.”