Tony Stewart recently made the first major change since he took over managerial control of Stewart-Haas Racing in the fall of 2008, elevating Matt Borland to vice president of competition on an interim basis and releasing Bobby Hutchens from the position. Hutchens got the ax nearly three weeks ago because Stewart wasn't happy with the race cars arriving at the track.
Stewart is 11th in the points and teammate Ryan Newman is eighth with 15 races in the book. That's the danger zone for making the Chase with 11 regular season races remaining. Only 38 points separate Newman (456) from Mark Martin (418) in 14th. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are in that group and they've won races, giving them an insurance policy under the Chase's new wild-card system.
There are drivers capable of climbing up into the contending group, led by Juan Pablo Montoya, who has two road races ahead to make headway scoring points and becoming a wild-card candidate with a win.
Stewart doesn't feel secure in the points, but the decision to install Borland goes beyond just making the Chase. He wants the team to be strong enough to win the championship and he knows the team's Chevrolets aren't there now.
"We're not where we need to be," Stewart said. "We're trying to fight through what's missing. We've been at a lot of race tracks this year where we've been just OK, tracks where we've typically been strong. Every organization goes through this, Childress, Gibbs and Roush [Fenway] have been through it in the past couple of years. In this industry, technology constantly changes."
From a technical perspective, Stewart-Haas and Hendrick Motorsports function virtually as a single entity. Hendrick sells chassis and leases engines to Stewart-Haas and they exchange data from the wind tunnel (owned by Stewart's co-owner, Gene Haas) to the race track. Hendrick has two wins with Jeff Gordon and one with Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is third in the points, but they aren't entirely pleased with their overall competitiveness, either.
"As an organization, we've all struggled this season," Stewart said. "We were the best two Hendrick [built] cars last weekend [Newman finished sixth, Stewart seventh] at Michigan."
Borland's background is engineering. He was Newman's crew chief at Penske Racing when they won 12 races together from 2002 to 2005 and he also worked with Dale Jarrett at Michael Waltrip Racing. Borland was hired as the Stewart-Haas' technical director in the original group brought on board by Stewart.
"Matt has kind of been getting everybody regrouped the past two weeks," Stewart said. "Matt is very smart. He's been doing special projects for us. He's really good at looking at problems and figuring out how to solve them. We couldn't have started in a different direction if we hadn't had Matt already here."
Stewart plans on hiring a director of competition, but Borland will remain in charge of the department. It's his responsibility to put the pieces together for a more competitive package.
There was a published report this week that Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's long-time crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, might move to Stewart-Haas and Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb, would become the team's director of competition.
"I laughed when I saw that," Stewart said. "It's not the first time I've read something that's not true."
Stewart plans on continuing the technical relationship with Hendrick into the future.
"We're definitely not starting our own engine shop," Stewart said. "Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress, they've been working on engines for years and it's an uphill battle to get caught up. We don't need to do our own chassis. It's still a huge advantage to work with six cars. I definitely think we have good stuff."
Stewart would like to get the team to three or four cars, but he doesn't have anything moving in that direction for next year.
"We don't have that package [sponsorship/driver] together and you need to have it by now," Stewart said.
Stewart has expressed interest in signing Danica Patrick, who has sought advice from him on how to drive at tracks in her partial Nationwide season.
"Everybody has an interest in Danica," Stewart said. "Who wouldn't? But people read too much into it [their friendship]."
But it's not impossible to imagine Patrick driving for Stewart-Haas, perhaps even next year. Stewart-Haas doesn't have a Nationwide operation, but she could stay with JR Motorsports, another Hendrick-affiliated organization, for an anticipated full campaign in Nationwide and run a few Sprint Cup races with Stewart-Haas.
Patrick's management group, IMG, is putting together a package for somebody in Nationwide and Cup and the Hendrick/Stewart-Haas/JR would work. But Gibbs and Richard Childress Racing also have Cup and Nationwide programs and attractive organizations.
Stewart would also be interested in signing Brian Vickers, a free agent, if he had something to offer. Vickers drives for Red Bull Racing, which has a cloudy future with the decision for the sponsor, which owns the team, to likely leave NASCAR.
"Absolutely," Stewart said of his interest in hiring Vickers. "I think the world of Brian. To go through what he's been through [blood clots and related medical problems] in the past year and come back the way he has, he hasn't missed a beat. There's no doubt he's a driver that can win races, he's proven that."
Stewart's immediate focus is on him and Newman winning races and running up front. Stewart has one top-five this year, a second at Las Vegas, and six top-10s. Newman has four top-fives and seven top-10s. It's not bad -- some teams would be thrilled to have two drivers in the top 12 in points -- but they're not where Stewart wants the team to be. He's counting on Borland's know-how to get him there.