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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Stewart’s Cinderella story complete with first points race win as owner

It had to happen eventually, but who would have thought it would come via fuel mileage?

Yes, after another 500 (un)scintillating miles at Pocono, Tony Stewart won driving for the team he co-owns, Stewart-Haas Racing.
(Side note: I vote that the big box of copier paper on top of the car in Victory Lane was perhaps the silliest product placement in the history of NASCAR)

If you wondered why Gene Haas basically gave half the team to Tony, this is why. In less than a year, the team has doubled in valued (now worth about $80 million) and the sky’s the limit for the future. Just by being Tony Stewart, he brought in so much money that he didn’t need to buy in. His name was the buy-in.

In case everyone’s not up to speed, here’s the amazing facts. Tony Stewart is leading the points, and a super-hot Ryan Newman has moved up to 4th in points, after being in the 30s after a rough start to the season. Looking back to 2008, this team was Haas CNC Racing, which fielded the #66 and #70 cars last year. Neither of which was even in the top 35 for most of 2008.

Now, the renumbered and completely rebuilt teams are 1st and 4th in points and will likely make the Chase. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports car, and Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing cars are on track to miss the Chase.

Even Stewart is amazed by the team’s rapid development, saying he was not confident success of this level would come so soon. Tony deserves credit for building a strong relationship with Hendrick, making sure the teams were getting adequate equipment, getting the proper sponsorship needed to compete, hiring the best available crew chiefs and shop personnel, and turning an also-ran team into a championship contender.

I, along with the rest of the media and most fans, doubted his ability to do such a quick turnaround in 2009. We were wrong, and there’s nothing to do but give Tony props for proving us wrong. Now that he’s gotten into Victory Lane, look for him and teammate Newman to return there several times before the season ends. They’ve found the magic recipe for success, and will no doubt be eating a healthy bowl of it for the rest of the season.

Whether they can maintain this momentum through the Chase is still a question, but if Tony can win a title in his first year as an owner-driver, it would be a feat almost (but not quite) as amazing as Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 title run.

Pocono, the sleep-inducing triangle
All the end-of-race drama about fuel mileage masked the fact that, as usual, the Pocono race was overly long and boring as sin. Amazingly, it could have been worse, but the double-file restarts rule spiced it up a little, helping to create the rare moments of interesting action up front during the race.

It’s pretty bad when the highlight of your race is waiting to see who will run out of gas. Now tell me again why this race has to be 500 miles.
It should be a 400-mile race once each year, and NASCAR move a second race to Darlington or another track that doesn’t produce these snoozefests.


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