- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

A year ago, everyone thought Tony Stewart was crazy - not in-need-of-psychiatric-care crazy but somewhere close.

He had just committed what was considered professional suicide by breaking away from Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 years - which included Sprint Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 and $72 million in winnings - to become a 50 percent owner of Haas CNC Racing, which had not won a Cup race since its inception in 2002.

But since trading in his No. 20 car for the No. 14, Stewart has proved to be anything but crazy. He has won two Cup events, including last weekend’s race at Daytona. He has posted 14 top-10 finishes and 10 top-fives in 18 races and is the first driver-owner to lead the points race since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

This weekend, Stewart-Haas Racing heads to Chicagoland Speedway, where he has two wins and six top-fives in his career.

“The success that we’ve had up to this point of the season has come much quicker than any of us I think would have dreamed, but we’re very pleased with it, very excited about it,” Stewart said. “We’re extremely excited about the progress of this race team and the organization and watching how the organization has grown over the last year now.”

A major part of that growth, co-owner Gene Haas said, is Stewart’s expectation to build a solid enterprise with a foundation built on championships.

“The biggest differences I see is really kind of in the attitude,” Haas told reporters in May. “It seems like we have this winning attitude throughout the company now, and that was probably the biggest thing I’ve seen.”

Kurt Busch, who’s fourth in the points, said he was amazed by the team’s ability to adjust so quickly to new people and new equipment. In a unique relationship, Hendrick Motorsports supplies all of Stewart-Haas Racing’s equipment and also provides engineering support.

“We all knew that Tony was very competitive and [that] it was going to be a matter of time before this team developed,” Busch said. “I don’t think anybody expected this team to be as strong as they are right now, so it’s definitely neat to watch. It creates in the back of anybody’s mind, ‘Hey, maybe I can go and do this.’ But I think you need to find special people to do it.”

Stewart called the whole process “painless,” noting the importance of bringing in good people to work with - such as his crew chief Darian Grubb, who came from Hendrick Motorsports, and teammate Ryan Newman. Under Grubb’s guidance, Stewart has completed all but three laps this year and hasn’t finished lower than seventh in his past six races.

Stewart’s ownership experience - he owns teams in the World of Outlaws and USAC series and has at least partial ownership in three racetracks - can’t be overlooked, and he had plenty of tutoring under Gibbs.

“I can promise you, Joe doesn’t know anything about those race cars,” Stewart said. “He doesn’t know how they work, but he knows how to hire the right people to do the right jobs in the organization, and that’s what has made him successful. That’s something that I feel like I was able to bring from Gibbs Racing and apply it to Stewart-Haas.”

Newman, who is seventh in the points and has five top-five finishes, said Stewart the owner is much departed from the driver who had earned a reputation as NASCAR’s bad boy.

“His levelheadedness, his calmness when it comes to the different situations, just how he’s adapted himself from a driver to a driver-owner is pretty amazing,” said Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner. “It takes a big person to do that.”

Perhaps Stewart’s biggest change since shifting roles has been knowing when to think like an owner and when to think like a driver.

“[On race day], I don’t want to sit there and worry about what the tire bill is for the weekend,” he said. “I want to worry about making sure I know what I need to do as a driver. … I worked really hard with my guys [before the season] saying, ‘Hey, I’m just one of you guys. I’m just one of the guys on the team. I’m your driver on the weekends.’ ”

Halfway through the season, Stewart has done an impressive job juggling all of his duties, transforming himself from outspoken champion to successful owner. No longer is he the crazy driver who left all of the stability in the world to buy into a relatively unknown team.

As scary as it sounds, Stewart now may be the smartest guy in the room.

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