Defending champion Stewart happy to share spotlight with Danica
CONCORD, N.C. -- With Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart knows he'll have to share the spotlight this season.
Stewart wouldn't want it any other way. In fact, the throwback driver from Columbus, Ind., is happy to fly under the radar as the defending Cup champion.
"As long as she is bringing attention to our sport it's a good thing," Stewart told SI.com Monday at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Tour. "It doesn't have to be Danica, either; it can be any driver. As long as they are bringing positive attention to NASCAR I don't mind having them take the spotlight away from me."
In a sport driven by personality, there are times when Stewart's ego is as big as any other driver's in NASCAR. But, as a team owner, he understands the value of having a hot commodity. And there is no hotter driver in terms of generating media attention and sponsorship interest than Patrick, the former IZOD IndyCar Series driver who became the first female driver ever to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 (her rookie season).
But IndyCar is now in Patrick's rear-view mirror, with Stewart and Patrick announcing Monday she will be racing in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 27 and not the Indianapolis 500. Patrick will compete in the entire NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports and run 10 or more Cup races for Stewart-Haas in 2012. She will become a Sprint Cup regular in 2013.
Patrick has been in the spotlight on and off the track ever since her breakthrough performance at the 2005 Indy 500. Being the GoDaddy Girl helped boost her persona and popularity, and at the track flocks of fans and media will be crowding around her, giving Stewart an easy path from his race car to his transporter.
"Tony stands alone and stands strong," Patrick said. "He's a very unique character and attracts the media and fans anyway. I just amp it up a little bit by adding to an exciting team overall. I know being unique draws attention. I have enjoyed that. I have fun with that and I don't ignore that."
Stewart-Haas Racing's incredible rise to the top of the sport in such a short time is quite impressive and the addition of Patrick places it in prime position to take attention away from teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.
"It's still pretty amazing to me to see where we were three years ago to where it is at now," Stewart said. "It's been fun to be at the shop and see how excited the guys are -- guys who three years ago had never won a race and now they are celebrating their first championship. It's been fun watching everybody have fun in the offseason."
As for Patrick's decision to run the Coca-Cola 600 instead of the Indianapolis 500, it should be pointed out that she didn't have a ride at Indy for 2012. So it made sense for Stewart-Haas Racing to add the 600 to her limited Sprint Cup schedule.
"I hope to do the Indy 500 in the future but at this point in time, after a lot of conversations, I'm just going to do the 600," Patrick said. "It's going to be a big challenge. I'm very fortunate to be in this position with this team; I've wanted to race stock cars full time for a little while here and it's happening. We're adding another challenge with the Coke 600. Life is good. I'm excited to see how NASCAR celebrates Memorial Day Weekend after seeing how Indy does it."
Danica wasn't the only offseason addition for Stewart-Haas. Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing from 1999 to 2008, joins the team as competition director and will serve as Patrick's crew chief for her 10 Cup races, beginning with the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Steve Addington is also new. He'll serve as Stewart's crew chief after the team decided to part ways with former crew chief Darian Grubb midway through the Chase.
"It's been a short offseason and [we] have had a lot of changes with Steve Addington coming on board as crew chief and having my good friend Greg Zipadelli back on board," Stewart said. "It's fun with all the changes that we have made in the offseason."
And the co-owner isn't the only one excited about the new faces.
"It's been awesome to come in and work with a group of guys here on the team," Addington said. "Tony Gibson [Newman's crew chief] and Matt Borland [vice president of competition] have been very good welcoming me to the team. ... I have to keep the communication with him going as far as the race car is concerned, but it's the people throughout the organization that makes this successful. I've been welcomed with open arms and I have the supporting cast here to be successful."
Most importantly, Stewart has succeeded where other teams have failed -- by being able to lure sponsorship to the race team during a sluggish economy. In racing, money buys speed, but to have a championship team, it takes a lot of money.
"I'm really, really proud of our marketing team introducing new partners to the sport and introducing them to NASCAR," Stewart said. "I take a lot of pride in what our marketing side has done. It's great to show these companies there is a value to NASCAR. It's the best position, sponsorship-wise, our company has been in since I partnered with Gene three years ago.
"We're starting the year on a good note and have a lot of exciting things added to our program so I'm very excited about that."
It's hard to argue the spotlight isn't on Stewart after he won the title in such spectacular fashion last year. But with so much new blood at Stewart-Haas, the defending champion might fly under the radar.