By Mark Beech
May 08, 2009

Tony Stewart entered this season attended by a legion of vociferous doubters. I should know -- I was one of them. And 10 races into the Cup schedule, he has made every one of us eat crow. A lot of crow. Stewart (four top-5 finishes, and seven top 10s) is in third place in the Cup standings, just 39 points out of the top spot; teammate Ryan Newman (two top 5s, four top 10s) sits in 10th. Both have to be considered favorites now to make the Chase.

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 Darien Grubb. But both Stewart and Newman had each had only one testing session in their respective cars during the break, and I just didn't see how their teams could have enough data to work with heading to Daytona.

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.

18: Chase standing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the season's first 10 races

23: Chase standing of Kevin Harvick

3: Number of drivers in the past two seasons who have rallied to make the Chase after being outside the top 12 after 10 races

Michael Waltrip has appeared in the last two episodes of the NBC sitcom My Name is Earl, a show known in my household mainly as an obstacle to be negotiated before one can watch The Office and 30 Rock. But, intrepid reporter that I am, I endeavored to check out Waltrip's shows. My review: not bad at all. But one lightning-quick cut, captured for all eternity, is sure to haunt the driver for the rest of his career.

It's amazing, really, the lengths to which some people will go to keep their SAG card.

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