The results of Tony Stewart’s first year as driver and co-owner of his Sprint Cup race team might seem surprising to some. He led the points standings for most of the 26 previous races and heads into Sunday’s first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup only 10 points behind Mark Martin.
But those who have followed Stewart’s career aren’t taken aback too much. He has always had a sense for the business side of racing. And those who recognize the might of Hendrick Motorsports, with whom Stewart forged a close business alliance, know that the Hendrick group is on top of the sport these days, with five of the 12 Chase drivers running Hendrick engines.
The truth is that Stewart, even when he was a teenager, was a budding businessman, nothing like the young dork he’s portrayed as in commercials for Old Spice.
His mom, Pam Boas, likes to tell the story of a young Tony participating in his church youth group’s pizza sales. It seems that Tony always wound up in charge, organizing and motivating the other kids.
His dad, Nelson Stewart, said his son was thinking about the business end of racing as soon as he started driving, in three-quarter Midgets.
“He went out on his own and did a T-shirt,” Nelson Stewart said. “He never asked his mom or me about it, he just went out, found a company and had the shirt designed. He got a card table and a chair and got his mom to sell them at the track.”
When Stewart decided to leave the security of Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last season, his business instincts led him to align with Rick Hendrick, NASCAR’s dominant team owner.
“I said from Day One that if it wasn’t for Rick Hendrick, I would not have made this decision to make this change,” Stewart said. “He was the guy that kind of gave me the comfort and feeling like everything was going to be all right and … that he would make sure that everything was right. … He’s been a great mentor to me, and he’s kind of the man-behind-the-scenes from the Stewart-Haas side.”
It also helped that Stewart lined up ample sponsorship at the start, which allowed him and his leadership team to focus on the competition side of the business.
“Once we got the financial side locked in, it gave us the flexibility to let the marketing department do all the fluff-and-buff side of it to make it all pretty, but it let us worry about making the race cars go fast at that point and get ready to go to Daytona,” he said.
At Daytona, many in the sport — and in the media — were waiting on the first setback, to see how the sometimes volatile Stewart would react.
It didn’t take long. His teammate Ryan Newman had a plethora of problems, none of which seemed to faze Stewart. He had been through it all before with the dirt racing and USAC teams he owns.
When Newman blew an engine in practice, Stewart was there in his firesuit, pouring oil in the tank, acting more like a kid with a new toy than a car owner in distress.
Even as Newman struggled through the first four races, dropping as low as 32nd in points after the first race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stewart didn’t panic and start making reactionary personnel shifts. He stayed the course, leaving Newman and his crew chief Tony Gibson to work things out. It was the right call. Both Stewart and Newman are in the Chase.
“It’s a dream come true, to think back to Daytona going through basically three race cars and make it to Richmond here and be in this position,” Newman said. “It says a lot about the hard work that Tony Gibson, Tony Stewart and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing has put into this effort.”
© Copyright: 16 Sep, 2009 Ajc