Tony Stewart isundoubtedly enjoying this. Once the enfant terrible of NASCAR, only slightlymore famous for his two championships than for his temper tantrums andfistfights, he has reinvented himself this season as the mild-mannered co-ownerof Cup racing's most surprising new team. Look at the way he smiled contentedlythrough a pair of press conferences at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte lastThursday, self-deprecatingly answering questions, including more than a fewabout his turbulent past. As one bemused reporter remarked after the show wasover, "Who was that guy, and what has he done with Tony?"
Stewart has plentyof reasons to be happy. He left Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last season topartner with owner Gene Haas (who was only recently released after serving 16months in prison for tax fraud). Stewart is second in the Cup standings afterfinishing 14th in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 on Monday and got the team'sfirst win at the All-Star race in Charlotte on May 16. His teammate RyanNewman, who won Stewart-Haas's first pole on Thursday night, is seventh in thestandings, and both are favorites to make the 12-driver Chase. That's quite astart for an outfit that wasn't supposed to be competitive until at least thesecond half of the season.
Perhaps we allshould have seen this coming. Stewart, after all, knows the business from thebottom up. In addition to his experience with open-wheel racing, he has wonchampionships as a sprint car impresario and holds an ownership stake in threespeedways. "Tony doesn't take vacations," says Rick Hendrick, the ownerof powerful Hendrick Motorsports. "He's thinking about racing 24 hours aday."
Certainly much ofthe success is attributable to the team's close relationship with Hendrick.Stewart buys his engines and chassis from Hendrick, and the two teams sharesome testing and practice information. One of Stewart's first moves was to hireHendrick engineer Darian Grubb to run his car's team. That's made a world ofdifference. "We always had Hendrick engines," says Sean Haggerty, thefront suspension mechanic for Stewart's car. "We just didn't know how touse them."
Stewart,meanwhile, has emerged as a gifted leader and motivator. His name andreputation alone were enough to land the team major sponsorship deals fromOffice Depot, Old Spice, the U.S. Army and Burger King. He runs his team fromthe floor of the shop, making wisecracks to his crew members even while he'schecking under car hoods, recording what he sees in a notebook that he carriesat all times. "It's important for the [crew] to understand that I'm nodifferent than they are," he says.
By buffing therough edges from his personality, Stewart has put his new team's focus on whathe does best: drive up front. "Guys are happy if we have to stay latenow," says Haggerty. "We're expected to win races."
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SHORT TRACK Test Drive
On the heels of NASCAR's indefinite suspension ofdriver Jeremy Mayfield (below) for failing a random drug test in early May—andfollowing the driver's threats of legal action—the lords of racing showed thatthey mean business when they conducted surprise tests on one crew member fromeach of 10 Cup teams during Sunday's rain delay at the Coca-Cola 600 inCharlotte. They were the first such tests on pit crews since NASCAR's tougherstandards were put in place at the beginning of this season. With ahigh-profile positive having turned up less than three months into the newprogram, NASCAR appears intent on being proactivewith its testing.
ELSA/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
ENJOYINGTHE RIDE Stewart (left) and Newman are in the thick of the Chase race with a combined nine top five finishes.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (MAYFIELD)
[See caption above]