The makeup artist is growing impatient with Tony Stewart. The leader in the Sprint Cup standings is sitting in a waiting room at a New York City television studio, leisurely sipping on 18-year-old Macallan scotch. It's a celebratory drink because, on this late-summer day, Stewart has been rushing around Manhattan for several hours—doing interviews, making a personal appearance to promote an Office Depot back-to-school program, meeting with fans, even shaking hands with admiring cabdrivers from faraway lands—and now he's at his final stop. When he tells the young woman with the combs and the powder and the brushes that he just wants to relax, she flashes a perky smile at the driver.
This is an article from the Sept. 21, 2009 issue
"It's time for you to man up," she says playfully to Stewart as she grabs his hand and leads him away toward her chair and mirror.
Once, not so long ago, this would have been the time to duck, a time when the driver known as Smoke would be certain to blow. Once, not so long ago, this was exactly what Stewart hated about his job—taking orders from strangers, powdering his face for the cameras.
Now, at age 38, he's a different man. Gone are the impetuousness, the volatility, the fire-breathing that made him infamous during his first 10 years on NASCAR's Cup circuit. As if to illustrate how much he has changed, when the freshly made-up Stewart strolls back into the waiting room, he plops down on a couch and calmly asks a p.r. person about what points he should make in the upcoming satellite interview. "I'm finishing this scotch, though," Stewart says with a grin, "because, damn it, I deserve it."
Indeed he does. Since he became a co-owner of the renamed Stewart-Haas Racing in July 2008, he has succeeded in doing something that few in the garage thought possible: He has rapidly built SHR into a powerhouse organization. Consider: Haas CNC Racing, as the team was known before Stewart took the reins—and the wheel—hadn't won a race in its seven years on the Cup circuit and had only one top five finish in its 284 starts. The team was so bad that in early 2008 owner Gene Haas told Joe Custer, who ran the day-to-day operations of Haas CNC, to either turn their race shop in Kannapolis, N.C., into a "truck stop" or make a radical change in the way the race team operated.
The radical change arrived in the stocky, stubbly form of Stewart, a two-time Cup champion and one of the biggest personalities in the sport. The results have been nothing short of amazing. Stewart's second-place finish at Dover International Speedway on May 31 propelled him to the top of the standings, the first time a driver-owner had led the Cup series in points since the late Alan Kulwicki (next page) won the championship in November 1992, a span of 556 races. When Stewart took the checkered flag at Pocono Raceway on June 7, he became the first driver-owner to win a points-awarding Cup race since Ricky Rudd in September 1998. And when the green flag drops on the Chase this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart—who finished the regular season with three wins and tied with Jeff Gordon for the most top 10 finishes (18)—and three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson must be considered the favorites to hoist the Cup after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22.
I never expected we'd have this much success so fast," says Stewart, now lounging on a leather couch in the back of his Falcon 50 jet as it flies at 550 mph over the Eastern Seaboard. "It's been a lot of work. This year I've been to my home in Indiana only 10 days. Last year at this time I'd been home probably 50 days. But now I'm in Charlotte and spending as much time in the shop as I can just trying to get everything right. It's been rewarding, especially since everyone in the sport thought this was going to be a train wreck at the start of the year."
Asked during the week leading up to regular season finale at Richmond about Stewart's achievement, Jimmie Johnson shook his head. "When the season started I thought we needed to check Tony into a mental hospital and ask him why he was trying to be a car owner," he said. "There are so many demands on the driver—both on and off the track—that I don't see how there's enough hours in the day for Tony. In fact, I still think he's crazy."
So how has Stewart done it? How, in his first full season, has he transformed a foundering team into an elite one? The story begins on an autumn evening in 2007 in Charlotte.
John Bickford has seen it all. Bickford, the stepfather of Jeff Gordon, helped shape Gordon's career, guiding the kid from the backwater circuit of USAC Midgets to NASCAR's premier series before he was even 23 years old. The 62-year-old Bickford, a former mechanic and now the vice president of Jeff Gordon Inc., is known as something of a behind-the-scenes wise man in the Cup garage, and one day in October 2007 Custer asked him to come to the Haas CNC motor coach, which was parked in the infield at Lowe's Motor Speedway. After the two sat down, Custer fired a question at Bickford: "How can we turn our team around?"
"Teams in NASCAR are built on franchise drivers," Bickford told Custer. "It's like in the NBA, where Shaq moves from one team to another and wins championships wherever he goes. Top drivers can do that too. You need a franchise player."
"Who's out there?" Custer asked.
"There's only one guy who has the mental power, the political clout, the talent and the charisma to lure potential sponsors," Bickford replied. "You need Tony Stewart."
The next day Bickford called Eddie Jarvis, Stewart's business manager, and left a voice mail saying that there could be an opportunity for Stewart with Gene Haas. The ball was now officially rolling. Stewart already was a successful team owner in USAC and the World of Outlaws—two grassroots racing series—and after spending 10 years driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, he had developed a wandering eye.
Stewart began to examine Haas CNC Racing. Though the team's drivers, Scott Riggs and Tony Raines, were finishing around 30th each weekend, Stewart saw glimmers of promise in the organization. For starters, it had an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful team in the sport over the last decade. Hendrick supplied engines, chassis and engineering support to Haas—even though, as one Hendrick employee notes, "they had no clue how to use what we were giving them." Also, Haas had recently completed construction on a 144,000-square-foot race shop in Kannapolis, just outside Charlotte. The more Stewart dug, the more he realized that the team had a sturdy foundation in place.
Before Stewart began negotiating with Haas, he had a long talk with Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports and the sport's ultimate kingmaker. Specifically, Stewart wanted to make sure that there would be an open-book policy between the teams' crew chiefs and drivers when it came to car setups, wind-tunnel data and engineering information. "I'll give you all the backing you need," Hendrick told Stewart as the two sat on the back porch of Hendrick's sprawling Charlotte home. "I won't let you fail."
In July 2008 Stewart reached an agreement with Haas: In return for 50% ownership of the team, which Forbes had recently valued at about $41 million, Stewart would pay Haas a grand total of ... zero dollars. "I never thought Tony would go for this," says Haas, who is the founder of Haas Automation, one of the world's leading machine-tool manufacturers. "We were a third-tier team that ran in the back each week. He was risking a lot, but Tony is not your typical driver. That was clear right away."
Indeed, the deal quickly proved to be a good one for Haas because Stewart was immediately able to do two things few in the sport could: He attracted marquee sponsors and lured A-list talent to his new team. Even as many organizations were in the process of shutting down last summer because sponsorship dollars were drying up in the struggling economy, Stewart signed Office Depot and Old Spice to sponsor his number 14 Chevy for '09 just two weeks after he announced he was heading to SHR. A few days later he invited Ryan Newman, a driver with Penske Racing, to dinner at the Brickhouse Tavern in Davidson, N.C. "You can have a fresh start with us," Stewart told Newman. "We're just racers, and we're all about bringing home the trophy each weekend. We're going to work our butts off, but we're going to have fun and, trust me, we're going to win."
Newman, who had 13 career wins and 43 poles, was the top available free agent at the time. After mulling Stewart's offer for a few days, he signed a three-year contract with SHR. "I could see what Tony was building, and I wanted to be a part of that," says Newman, who also qualified for the Chase. "His willpower to get things done has amazed me."
Stewart then consulted with Hendrick about whom he should hire to be his crew chief. Stewart was constantly calling Hendrick, leaving messages as late as 11 p.m. for the owner, who is usually in bed by nine. During one late-night conversation, Hendrick recommended Darian Grubb, who was the lead engineer for the number 88 and number 5 teams at Hendrick. The 33-year-old Grubb, a graduate of Virginia Tech, was a proven commodity. He guided Jimmie Johnson to a win in the 2006 Daytona 500 while filling in for Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, who had been suspended for a rules violation. Stewart wooed Grubb at the same Brickhouse Tavern table at which he had cast his spell over Newman. "You'll be the boss Friday through Sunday at the track," Stewart said. "I'll take care of ownership stuff during the week, but at the track you're in charge."
After weighing the offer for a few days—when Grubb asked Hendrick for his advice, the owner put his hand on Grubb's shoulder and told him the same thing he had told Stewart: "I won't let you fail"—Grubb signed with SHR. This was perhaps Stewart's most important hire. Grubb, who had spent six years at Hendrick, is close friends with all the crew chiefs and engineers in that organization. So if he has a question about an aerodynamic issue or a setup problem at the track, he'll either approach or e-mail Knaus, Steve Letarte (Gordon's crew chief), Alan Gustafson (Mark Martin's crew chief) or Lance McGrew (Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief) and usually have a response within minutes. If it sounds as though SHR is a satellite Hendrick team, that's because, in many ways, it is.
"The biggest [key] to Tony's success has been the fact that he has Hendrick equipment and he's basically teammates with Jeff, Jimmie, Mark and Dale," says a driver on a rival team who requested anonymity. "Hendrick has been the dominant team this year, and Tony is obviously benefiting from that. People tend to forget that Tony didn't build this from scratch."
In November of last year Stewart made his final significant hire when, after six weeks of lobbying, he persuaded Bobby Hutchens to become SHR's competition director. The 49-year-old Hutchens, who earned a mechanical engineering degree from N.C. State in 1982, was among the first college-educated engineers hired full time in the sport when, in 1988, he went to work at Richard Childress Racing, where he helped Dale Earnhardt win four Cup championships. Hutchens now runs the day-to-day operations of SHR and on race weekends assumes ownership responsibilities, such as keeping an eye on the budget. Why did he make the move? "Same reason as almost everyone else here," he says. "The chance to work with Tony."
Over the off-season more than 1,000 people in the sport lost their jobs because teams were folding or merging. But the recession turned out to be a boon for SHR, as Hutchens, Stewart and Grubb were flooded with résumés. They hired 30 employees, from crewmen to hauler drivers to administrative assistants. "The recession made for a deep talent pool," Grubb says. "We were lucky in that regard. Still, none of us thought this would come together like it has. Sometimes I still don't believe it."
Right away they flashed elite speed. When Stewart and Newman rolled onto the track at Daytona International Speedway last February, their lap times were among the fastest in the field. As Haas watched the practice sessions for the Daytona 500 from his home in Oxnard, Calif., he went bug-eyed. It was as if Stewart had waved a magic wand over the entire organization. Wow, this is different, Haas thought to himself. We're running in front!
Stewart led 15 laps in the 500 and finished eighth, while Newman wound up 36th after being slowed by a loose wheel. But as the temperatures started to rise this spring, Stewart—as is his custom—began to heat up. Stewart grew up racing in the Midwest on dirt tracks, where the cars slip and slide through every turn, and he now excels on sunbaked, slick tracks. To the surprise of most on the circuit, his cars were equal to his talent. From May 2 at Richmond (where he finished second) to Aug. 10 at Watkins Glen (where he won), Stewart roared to 10 top five finishes in 13 starts. Most seasoned observers in the garage believe that Stewart is driving at the highest level of his career; the occasional lapses of concentration that plagued him at Gibbs Racing over the past few seasons are no longer an issue. "I think he's clearly driving better than he was at Gibbs," Haas says. "This is his own show now, and he's responding to that. Trust me, he's working as hard as anyone in the sport."
The demands on Stewart's time are relentless. On a recent 11-day binge of work, he slept in 10 beds and set foot in seven states, fulfilling obligations around the country ranging from appearances for his sponsors to working in the pits with his World of Outlaws team in Knoxville, Iowa, to racing at Michigan International Speedway. But Stewart's most important hour each week takes place at the Stewart-Haas headquarters, where every Monday afternoon he takes a seat at a competition meeting attended by all the team's key players. Hutchens runs the meeting, but Stewart has the final call on all major decisions. "Tony has been a great boss to work for," Grubb says. "He reminds me of Mr. Hendrick in the way that he treats everyone as if they're family. I wish everybody could see this side of Tony."
Can Stewart win the championship in his first year as a driver-owner? It's a question he contemplates while sitting in the back of his plane on a late August evening. As usual, Stewart is sleep deprived and not entirely sure what day it is, but as he looks out the window at a red-orange sunset bleeding across the sky, he is sure of one thing: He is ready for the Chase.
"We're still growing as a race team and we still need to get better, especially on the 1.5-mile tracks, but I like our chances in the Chase," he says softly. "I can promise you we won't be outworked. We won't. And if we can catch a few breaks—and let's face it, it takes some luck to win the championship—then who knows? This story may have the ultimate happy ending."
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No Going It Alone
The high cost of modern racing has largely squeezed the driver-owner out of the sport
In NASCAR's early days, driver-owners were as common as lug nuts in the garage. Between 1949 (the sport's inaugural year) and 1979, a driver-owner won the championship 13 times. Some of racing's most iconic figures—Herb Thomas, Lee Petty and the King himself, Richard Petty—were driver-owners. The last of this species to hoist the big trophy at season's end was Alan Kulwicki in 1992. (Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash the following year.) But since then the driver-owner has nearly gone the way of the dodo. The reason? Money.
Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champ in the early 1980s while driving for owner Junior Johnson, went on to field his own team and in 1991 won two races and finished eighth in the points. But he was operating on a shoestring budget of $3.5 million. He was eventually KO'd in 1998 because he was losing his best employees to bigger teams—"They could pay more," he says—and he couldn't come up with the $12 million or so that he needed to be competitive. Neither could Ricky Rudd, who got out of the driver-owner game in '99, or Bill Elliott, who left the following year. Today it costs about $25 million per season to field an elite car.
Which is why you've got to admire the tenacity of Robby Gordon and Michael Waltrip (Darrell's brother), the two other full-time driver-owners currently in the sport along with Tony Stewart. Unlike Stewart, who took over an existing team that had a special relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon and Waltrip started their teams from scratch. "You can't even put me in the same category as Michael and Robby," Stewart says. "What they are doing is amazing."
What they are not doing is winning. Gordon has been driving for Robby Gordon Motorsports for five years and in that time has just four top-five finishes. That's impressive, though, considering that his bare bones operation is competing against the likes of Hendrick, which boasts a staff of 550. Michael Waltrip, meanwhile, has only five top 10s in 74 starts. But his team broke through this year. David Reutimann, who drives the number 00 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, earned the first victory for MWR in Charlotte this fall and narrowly missed qualifying for the Chase. Better days are ahead for this team, but not with Waltrip behind the wheel; he's getting out of the car next season and putting Martin Truex Jr. in his seat.