Tony Stewart began recruiting Danica Patrick in the fall of 2009, giving her tours of his race shop and a tutorial on Sprint Cup. As a former IndyCar driver and champion, Stewart could speak her language and outline what it takes to be successful in stock cars. Stewart believed in Patrick's ability to make the difficult transition before she'd run a stock car race at any level and that faith paid off last week with the announcement she'll join Stewart-Haas Racing for a partial schedule in Cup in 2012.
Patrick is expected to move up to a full schedule in Cup with Stewart-Haas in 2013 and Stewart would like to get the third team going for all 36 races in 2012. Stewart is an astute and active businessman in racing -- with multiple ownerships in tracks, teams and other enterprises -- and he's always wanted to build his Cup team into four cars. With Patrick, a magnet for sponsors, coming on board, Stewart has a chance to do it by 2013.
Stewart's first order of business is Patrick's 2012 program. She is the perfect fit at Stewart-Haas -- and the team is a perfect fit for her -- with the ties between the team, Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports, her full-time Nationwide team next season. Now they just have to make it work. Stewart understands he can hire the best people available to field the most competitive team only by running full time. Patrick's Cup program, funded by Go Daddy, is expected to be eight to 10 races. Stewart needs to hire a driver willing to run the rest and find sponsors willing to back that driver.
"If we can put together a package to run somebody in the rest of the races, we would love to do that," Stewart said. "It's in everybody's best interest to do that and I know it would be good for us as a team to be able to go ahead and run that car full time next year if the opportunity presents itself.
"All along we've wanted to be a third- and fourth-car team, so having that opportunity to add that third car, I know that's going to create a lot of excitement [at Stewart-Haas]."
The presumption here is the third team would become Patrick's full-time group in 2013. Starting that team in 2012 would make for a good foundation.
Who is Stewart interested in signing to run part time in 2012?
1. Mark Martin. He's at the top of the list because of his 40 victories, his ability to compete at age 52 and his desire to race part time in 2012. Martin hasn't won a race since 2009, but he was second at Dover and fourth at Michigan this season and with two top-fives and seven top-10s, has better numbers (but is lower in points at 19th) than A.J. Allmendinger and Greg Biffle. Martin's current relationship with Go Daddy isn't believed to be a factor, but he drives for Hendrick and his understanding of the equipment could be beneficial in helping set up the team for Patrick.
2. Brian Vickers. There's likely mutual interest between driver and owner. Vickers is only 27, has two Cup victories (one with Hendrick and one with Red Bull), has made the Chase (2009) and has a good future. If Stewart is looking to keep the same driver for 2013, Vickers is the best prospect. He's struggled this season, 27th in points with one top-five and five top-10s, but those problems are more related to the team's lame-duck status than his health issues from 2010. Red Bull is getting out of ownership and sponsorship and it's probably not continuing to develop the cars.
3. Casey Mears. He drove for Ganassi (before its merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc.), Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing, but scrambled for rides in 2010 before joining Germain Racing for 12 races. He's been in 23 of 24 races with Germain this season and is 31st in points without a top-10. Mears has one win in 296 Cup starts and finished 14th in the points in 2006 and 15th in 2007. It all adds up to some experience, some success and, at age 33, some productive seasons ahead with the right team and good equipment. Mears would jump at the chance to join Stewart, a Chase-quality team, even without the chance to race in the Chase.
4. Bobby Labonte. He'd bring his 2000 Cup championship and champion's provisional as a selling point to sponsors and the team and, at age 47, might find a 25-plus race schedule with a quality team appealing. But he hasn't won a race since 2003 and has one top-five, two top-10s and stands 29th in points this season with JTG Daugherty Racing. Labonte should be interested in Stewart, but how interested is Stewart in him? He's down the list with Martin, Vickers and Mears eager to make deals, but he's not out of the picture.