In the offseason it was assumed that Stewart, NASCAR's newest driver-owner, would struggle to be consistently competitive in 2009. I remember visiting the shop of Stewart-Haas Racing in January and coming away thinking that the team was in just a tad over its head. Don't get me wrong: the operation was impressive. Stewart made it a priority from Day One to surround himself with talented and experienced people, and he got both in Newman and crew chief
For that reason, I subscribe a large chunk of the new operation's success to the close relationship between Stewart-Haas and Hendrick Motorsports. Stewart-Haas is a two-car outfit, but in partnership with Hendrick -- the two teams share the powerful HMS chassis and engine programs -- it's more like a six-car super-team. Part of the deck, in other words, has been stacked in favor of Stewart-Haas. Not everything about the team's remarkable performance has to do with the triumph of the little guy.
But a good portion of it does -- it's a feel-good story in an unsettled season. With chassis and engines from HMS, Stewart's team has good stuff to work with. What they do with it, however, is completely up to them. And that's where all of Stewart's emphasis on quality people comes in. In just three short months, it seems he assembled one of the most talented teams in the sport. And he did it all in the midst of the worst economy in a generation, and at a time when start-up teams have never been at more of a disadvantage in the Cup series.
Stewart certainly benefits from his experience, not only as a racer, but also as a team and track owner -- he owns a sprint car operation in the World of Outlaws Series, as well as tiny Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. The man knows the racing business from the inside of the garage all the way to the upper sweeps of the grandstands. And in Newman, who holds an engineering degree (vehicle structural engineering, to be exact) from Purdue, he has a teammate who knows cars just as thoroughly. His organization is full of experts from the very top on down.
After Stewart's eighth-place finish at Daytona, I wrote that I was skeptical of his ability to maintain such performance once the Cup series moved to the intermediate tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule. And I was just talking about Stewart alone. I didn't anticipate both Stewart and Newman being so competitive all season. I should have known better.
It's amazing, really, the lengths to which some people will go to keep their SAG card.