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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Stewart should look to Kulwicki for inspiration

When Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup championship as an owner/driver, he stunned the NASCAR world. He was battling with Junior Johnson driver Bill Elliott and Robert Yates driver Davey Allison, yet somehow used his do-it-yourself, never-say-die attitude and extreme, sometimes fanatical, dedication to perfection to will himself to win that title, shortly before his tragic death in a plane crash in 1993. He started a team that no one thought would do much, and ended up on the top of the sport.

That is similar to the Herculean challenge facing Tony Stewart as soon as next year, when it’s rumored he will leave Joe Gibbs Racing and become 50 percent owner of Haas CNC Racing while also driving for the team. Rumors are Martin Truex Jr. or Ryan Newman will become his teammate at Haas, which is currently languishing way back in the standings with driver Scott Riggs in the 66 car and a rotating cast of drivers in the 70 car. The team would likely be renamed to include Stewart’s name.

Since Kulwicki won his title, multicar teams have dominated the Cup series and no owner/driver has sniffed a title, and I’m sure Stewart isn’t making this switch with the goal of running mid-pack. He’s tasting success as a World of Outlaws and USAC car owner and wants to do the same at the Cup level. Now that he has won two titles as a driver and he’s no longer the top dog at Gibbs thanks to Super-Kyle, he’s wanting to take the plunge and see how successful he can be as a Cup team owner.

I wish him luck, but Stewart has a tough road ahead of him for many reasons. First off, the Haas team is pretty terrible right now. The cars often miss races, and when they make it, they consistently wreck and have major mechanical failures. It’s easily one of the least competitive teams in the entire sport. There will probably be two new drivers, new crew chiefs, crews and team members, and a new co-owner -- basically making it a new team -- so he’s starting from scratch and has no idea if the team will achieve. They say you have to start at the bottom to succeed, and Stewart’s doing that in an extreme way.

Improving an unknown quantity like that is not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re competing against the likes of Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs. These three teams have won all the Cup titles except for one, and most of the races, since 1995. Smaller teams like Haas have to be firing on all cylinders to even keep up with the Big Three of NASCAR’s top series.

I’ll admit that anything is possible. Rumor is Office Depot and Old Spice will be coming over to sponsor the revamped team’s two cars. They’ll likely bring big-time money not seen in the Haas stable before, which always helps performance. Likewise, the improved driver talent will also help the team do better.

But considering the team’s cars usually finish in the 30s or worse, even great improvement might mean just a few top-10s next season. Tony Stewart is used to winning everywhere he’s ever competed, and we all know he has a bit of a temper. He may drive himself and his team crazy adjusting to his new role as team owner, especially if there’s a rocky first season. I can’t imagine Stewart will be too happy if he’s riding around as lapped traffic while getting passed by leader Joey Logano in his old No. 20 car.

If all the rumors turn out to be true, it will be fun to watch Tony’s efforts as a team owner. If he can achieve success and win races or a title with the team, it will be an accomplishment of Kulwickian proportions.


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