For the past three years we've watched Jimmie Johnson do something we had never seen before. On Sunday, Tony Stewart might accomplish something we thought we would never see again.
When the checkered flag flies late Sunday afternoon at Homestead to end the final NASCAR race of the season, the curtain will officially fall on Johnson's historic run of five consecutive Sprint Cup Series championships. Considering that no driver in the history of NASCAR had ever won more than three straight titles, Johnson's drive for five could go down as the sport's alltime greatest achievement.
But in some respects what Stewart is trying to accomplish is nearly as amazing. If he can overcome his three-point deficit to Carl Edwards and win this year's Cup title, he will become the first owner-driver to capture the championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. In this era of intense specialization, when most drivers don't even look at the engine anymore, it would seem nearly impossible for a driver to pull double-duty as a team owner and then lead that team to the championship.
Just ask Robby Gordon, Michael Waltrip, Ricky Rudd or any of the other owner-drivers who have floundered in the back of the pack in recent years just how impressive such an accomplishment would be. Even Stewart had to admit last week, "There's a part of this that is very historic if it happens."
Before we go any further, it has to be mentioned that Stewart is far from some renegade outsider running a bare-bones organization that is always on the verge of bankruptcy. He formed Stewart-Haas Racing three years ago with significant financial assistance from co-owner Gene Haas. He has mechanical and technical support from powerful Hendrick Motorsports and enjoys the help of a veteran Sprint Cup driver in teammate Ryan Newman.
Still, the demands of simultaneously driving a car and running a team can be draining, which is the main reason it is so rarely attempted anymore, and certainly why the few who have tried it have had such underwhelming results. No owner-driver had led the points standings for even a single week since Kulwicki won the title before Stewart did it on May, 31, 2009. His victory at Pocono one week later made Stewart the first owner-driver to win a Cup race since Ricky Rudd in 1998.
So while Stewart might not be a true independent the way Kulwicki was nearly 20 years ago, he is still doing something most of his driving peers have no desire to attempt. He is examining business spreadsheets during the week and lap times on the weekend, signing invoice orders and payroll checks at the office and autographs at the track. And throughout it all, he is maintaining the same driving ability that enabled him to win two titles and 33 races as a member Joe Gibbs Racing from 1999 through 2008. He's won four races this year, all within the last nine races, and needs to finish ahead of Edwards in Sunday's roughly 43-car field to clinch the title.
"I applaud guys like Tony who start up their own teams because it's a tremendous amount of work to take on," said Jeff Gordon, who has a financial stake in Hendrick Motorsports but no daily ownership duties. "Just with my equity ownership, I see how challenging it is. These budgets aren't going down, and the competition is so tough. You need a really serious financial backer, and then you have to have the right business people who know how to manage it."
Indeed, Stewart said one of the first things he did when he formed Stewart-Haas Racing was make sure he had dependable people in all the key management positions. Without that, he said it is doubtful he would be enjoying the dual role nearly as much as he is.
"A lot of it is due to the fact we have good people in the right spots who allow it to be fun," Stewart said. "You don't feel like you have to micromanage, you don't feel like you have to be on top of everybody all the time. You feel comfortable knowing that the days you're not at the shop, it's running along just fine without you."
The never-ending quest for sponsorship is a prime example. Sponsor dollars are the fuel that makes a NASCAR team run, and there is no way Stewart could devote enough time to that part of the business and still put forth a championship-level effort on the track. So when it comes to sponsorship, Stewart is like the fullback who lets the rest of the team drive the ball to the 1-yard line, and then he comes in to score the touchdown.
"We have a marketing staff that starts those meetings. I get involved very late in the process," Stewart said. "That's what makes me proud about our organization. Joe Gibbs taught me a long time ago you hire the right people in the right positions and let them do their job. And our marketing staff has done a great job of introducing partners to our company."
He admits that Stewart the owner sometimes has to look at things slightly differently than Stewart the driver would.
"My guys will say, 'This is what we need to be better on the track,' and then I have to figure out how to make that work in the budget," he said with a smile that bordered on a grimace. "That's probably the hardest thing."
Equally as hard was firing vice president of competition Bobby Hutchens in June with the team sitting eighth in the standings. "I can promise you it's one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make in my life," Stewart said at the time. "I think the world of Bobby. I have a lot of respect for Bobby, but it's a situation where you've got to sit there and evaluate where and if things are going in a direction you want it to go and I just don't feel like it's doing that right now."
But even the hardest parts of the job do not diminish the enjoyment Stewart derives from being his own boss and maintaining a championship-contending race team. It is the best of both worlds, and it could become even better if Stewart can best Edwards for the championship trophy come Sunday.
"It's been more fun that I thought it was going to be," Stewart said. "Sure, my plate is full. I have everything to do that I can handle. But the longer I'm in this role the more comfortable I get.
"To win a championship as a driver is a great feeling, but to win it as a driver and owner would add to that. You get the sense of satisfaction knowing that you were directly responsible for helping put the package together. That's something I'd be proud of, being the guy who watched all these great people come together and do something extraordinary."