THE PHONE frequently rings late at night in the Mooresville, N.C., home of Darian Grubb. On the line will be the anxious voice of his new boss, Tony Stewart, whose to-do list for next season is as long as it is daunting. Stewart, the majority owner (and No. 1 driver) of Stewart Haas Racing (SHR), still needs to hire 90% of his planned 140-person race team for 2009. He doesn't have a general manager to oversee his organization. He's searching for another sponsor for second driver Ryan Newman. And he has yet to develop a rapport with Grubb, whom he barely knows even though Grubb, 33, will be his crew chief next season. But five months after striking the deal to form SHR, the 37-year-old Stewart has already built a foundation so strong that the folks in the NASCAR garage fully expect the driver known as Smoke to win multiple races in '09, an extraordinary prognosis for what is essentially a start-up team.
Stewart's first major decision as owner-driver was to hire the 30-year-old Newman away from Penske Racing. Five years ago, in just his second full season on the track, Newman led the Cup series in victories with eight. But since then he has failed to qualify for the last three Chases. Newman's struggles have been symptomatic of deeper problems at Penske, which has decayed into a second-tier organization, and Newman wanted a fresh start.
Like Stewart he prefers his car loose, allowing the rear tires to slide a little in the turns, and having both drivers using a similar setup will enhance the team's ability to diagnose and fix problems on race day. "We've got a great chance to be good right away," Newman says. "I wouldn't have come to this team if I didn't believe that."
Why is Newman so confident? For starters, Hendrick Motorsports, the organization that is closing in on its third straight championship (box), will supply motors and chassis to SHR. Hendrick will also share its testing data with the crew chiefs, engineers and drivers at SHR. The key person in this information flow between Hendrick and SHR will be Grubb, who has been an engineer and crew chief at Hendrick for the last six years.
Grubb has an impressive record. In 2006, when Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was suspended for four races for cheating, Grubb guided Johnson to two wins—including the Daytona 500. Grubb has a close relationship with all the crew chiefs at Hendrick, and he'll burn up the phone lines next season picking their brains. And several sources in the garage with knowledge of the situation say that Stewart, who currently has more than 200 résumés on his desk, will continue to hire key personnel from Hendrick, which will only strengthen the bond between the two organizations.
"Stewart Haas will be [almost] a subsidiary of Hendrick, so they'll be good right away," says Richard Petty. "They'll have great equipment. If they get the right people in the right place, man, watch out."
Of course, not everyone is happy about the time Stewart has spent laying the groundwork for '09. His current crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, has complained that Stewart's preoccupation with his new team has been a distraction to his number 20 crew, and it's hard to dispute that. On Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, where Stewart's average finish in his previous six starts had been 5.3, Stewart cut a tire midway through the race and wound up 26th in the Tums Quik Pak 500. He's now buried in eighth place in the standings, trailing by 338 points with four races left in what has been a disappointing season.
But for Stewart, the time spent looking ahead seems to be paying off. Among the rank-and-file in the garage, he's an early favorite to win the Daytona 500.
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Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.
Pair of Threes?
Jimmie Johnson (right) didn't clinch his third straight Sprint Cup title for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville, but it'll be an upset if he isn't hoisting the big trophy again at Homestead-Miami Speedway in four weeks. After taking his sixth checkered flag of the season on Sunday, Johnson holds a 149-point lead over Greg Biffle in the Chase standings. If Johnson merely finishes in the top 10 in each of the final four races—a good bet, considering that he's been 10th or better in 20 of his last 22 Chase races—he'll cruise to the finish and join Cale Yarborough (left) as the only drivers to win three straight Cups. Said a smiling Johnson at Martinsville, "We're getting closer."
NEW HOME Stewart (left and below) will change colors in '09, and add Hendrick muscle.
FRED VUICH (CAR)
[See caption above]
FRED VUICH (JOHNSON)
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (YARBOROUGH)