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New role hasn't mellowed NASCAR's Tony Stewart

The 51st Daytona 500 | 3:30 p.m. today, Daytona International Speedway | TV: Ch. 13


Tony Stewart had seen enough drivers struggle taking on the label "driver-owner" to know this wasn't going to be easy. Michael Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, Mark Martin, even his idol, A.J. Foyt, could have told him there would be days like this. But Stewart's blissful veneer cracked like the sheet metal on his No. 14 Chevrolet on Saturday, when a blown tire cued a two-car wreck that totaled the cars he and Ryan Newman were to use today in the Daytona 500. Newman's wreck put him in his third car of Speedweeks, one of which had qualified third. Stewart would have started fifth but now goes to the back of the field with Newman.

"I'm ticked right now. I'm not happy, I'm not cordial, I'm not nice," he said. He called one reporter a "rocket scientist," another an "idiot." He lambasted Goodyear for its product.

"Don't get them anywhere near me," he said. "Don't bring them anywhere close; don't let them come close. I don't want anything to do with them."

Another lesson learned. Yet another example that no matter his experience or accomplishments, no matter the alliances with powerful Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart will not truly know how well he handles this compounding of duties until he handles days like Saturday.

"I've been pretty patient so far, I thought," the two-time series champion said in January when asked if the driver or the owner would become impatient first. "I think the adrenaline still comes from the driver."

Stewart, 37, can be a driver when he flips down his visor, but when the helmet comes off, the worries of an organization can rush down upon him. Perhaps that will never be more acute than in today's Daytona 500, a race that has bedeviled him in 10 previous attempts.

Waltrip, a two-time 500 winner, brought that pressure to his first 500 as an owner, in 2006, when his team was the flagship of Toyota's first-year Sprint Cup program. He spoke of the joy of watching a dream move from a backyard shop to NASCAR's grandest stage until the week was spoiled when inspectors found an illegal substance in the intake manifold of his No. 55. Stigmatized as a cheater, heavily sanctioned by NASCAR, Waltrip purged several employees who were implicated, but he and his top executives maintain their innocence and ignorance about what happened.

"The owner part was obviously very hard to get my arms around, to understand it and learn how to be effective at ownership," Waltrip said. "It's not the owner or the driver, it's the supporting cast around you that helps you … be successful."

Stewart's team is as solid as can be for a fixer-upper. He hired former Richard Childress Racing executive Bobby Hutchens as competition director, pinched Daytona 500-winning crew chief Darian Grubb from Hendrick, and Tony Gibson from DEI as Newman's crew chief. In Grubb, Stewart also got a perfect liaison with Hendrick, from whom Stewart leases motors and has a chassis development deal. Hendrick and Stewart-Haas also share a great deal of information. Hendrick calls him every day, Stewart said, to ask what he needs.

"It's one of those variables on the list you don't even worry about," he said.

Kevin Harvick, who owns a team in the Nationwide and truck series, seemed amused last month that Stewart "was still in the fun stage."

"When it'll really hit is when you get that first penalty from a crew chief or you're not running good and you have to take that first step from a (research and development) standpoint to get your cars more competitive," he said.

Stewart's unplanned ascent to ownership was rose-scented at the start. Gene Haas, incarcerated for federal income tax evasion, broached the idea to Stewart two years ago and formalized the deal last summer, giving Stewart a half-stake in the team, ostensibly parlaying his power to improve the team's performance and ability to attract sponsors.

The front-office aspects have worked smashingly, with defending 500 winner Newman leaving Penske Racing to join him last summer and large sponsors including Office Depot, the Army and Burger King leaving other teams to come aboard.

Stewart's third-place run in the nonpoints Bud Shootout perpetuated the joy ride. Newman's blown engine in practice and wreck when David Reutimann bumped him in Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races were inconvenient. But the Saturday crash was clearly agitating for Stewart.

"We were actually talking about how the cars were running before that," he said. "It's just a rough day."

There will be days like these.

New role hasn't mellowed NASCAR's Tony Stewart 02/14/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 15, 2009 7:42am]
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