Tony Stewart has been a marketing magnet during his NASCAR career, and five years ago, sponsors would have been lining up to replace Old Spice, which announced in May that it was leaving Stewart-Haas Racing. But times are different now and Stewart has virtually ruled out adding a third Sprint Cup team next year.
"I would say there's probably a zero percent chance," he said in a national teleconference Tuesday. "We're still trying to fill the void when Old Spice changes (after) this year."
If a two-time Cup champion and 37-race winner is scrambling to find funding for his car, that's solid evidence that times are hard for everyone. The Sprint Cup series has survived the economic downturn of the past couple of years, but Stewart's situation says recovery may be several years away.
The third team was one of Stewart's priorities, second only to teammate Ryan Newman getting his first win with the organization going into this season. Newman got that done at Phoenix in April. Stewart's marketing department was undoubtedly working on a third team prior to losing Old Spice and it doesn't appear that it had made much headway.
A fan, via twitter, asked Stewart what he found most difficult about being a team owner.
"You know, the hardest thing right now is the economy," Stewart said. "It takes a lot of money to fund these teams. There's so many great things about it that I enjoy. I really enjoy working with the people. But the hardest part is generating and raising the funds that you need to run these multi-million dollar race teams. It's a very costly sport and it takes a lot of funding to do that."
There is interest in Stewart's team from other sponsors and it seems very likely that he'll find the millions he'll need to complete a full budget. He's also looking for additional funding for Newman's car.
"We're talking to a lot of great people," Stewart said. "There's a lot of good opportunities out there. It's just a matter of time finding a package that works for somebody to fill our spot. There's still races we're trying to take care of on Ryan's car."
Stewart's statement about his third team left a little wiggle room, just enough for Kasey Kahne to slip through for next year. Rick Hendrick is responsible for finding a team for Kahne, who is signed for his team in 2012, and Stewart-Haas has a close working relationship with Hendrick. Kahne is trying to bring Budweiser, his sponsor at Richard Petty Motorsports, along with him. Kahne's World of Outlaws Sprint Car team is also backed by Budweiser and he wants to keep the package together.
Would Stewart take Kahne for one year at Hendrick's request? It seems like it would be very difficult for Stewart to turn him down. But Hendrick has said there are multiple opportunities for Kahne for 2011 and he may have a master plan that involves the future of Mark Martin and wouldn't include Stewart-Haas.
Stewart proved he could succeed in balancing the tasks of ownership and driving last year when he made the Chase in the rebuilt organization's first season. With eight races remaining to make this year's Chase, Stewart is ninth, 120 points in front of 13th-place Martin, heading into his most productive part of the schedule.
Stewart has victories at all of the remaining eight tracks, including two at this week's stop, Chicagoland, and two in the following race at Indianapolis. Stewart has 15 wins in July and August.
Following a difficult six-race stretch with a best-of 16th at Talladega that left him 18th in the points 11 races into the season, Stewart has rallied with three top-fives and five top-10s in his last seven. He was second at New Hampshire and third at Pocono.
Stewart can't pinpoint a reason for the turnaround. "I think it's just the work that everybody has been doing," he explained. "It's kind of weird how last year we started off the season really well. Literally the first half of the year was right on pace with what we were looking for. Then, four or five weeks before the Chase started, we started falling off and then, really, we were struggling during the Chase.
"We couldn't really put our finger on what we were doing differently and what we were dong wrong. It seems like this year we got off to a slow start, but it seems like we're picking it up, so hopefully we're having the polar opposite of what we had last year."
Stewart is running at a Chase pace, but knows he's not secure.
"I'm still not really comfortable where we're at in the point standings right now, but we're definitely making gains, for sure," he said.
Stewart doesn't have a win this season. You can figure he'll have a couple before the Chase begins. History tell us these are his tracks coming up and this is his time to excel. It will give him the momentum he needs for the Chase. He's a sleeper for the championship today. He'll be a front runner for it by September.
In the meantime, that third team is a matter that will need some time.