No learning curve for owner-driver Tony Stewart

Published 8:56 pm Friday, March 6, 2009

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — So much for Tony Stewart’s learning curve.

Everyone figured Smoke would need a bit of time to adapt to his new role as a car owner-slash-driver, having left a highly successful gig at Joe Gibbs Racing to take control of a struggling team that needed rebuilding from the ground up. Even Stewart was realistic about his chances of immediate success.

“From a physical parts and pieces standpoint, we knew we had what we needed,” he said late Friday afternoon, having just climbed from his red No. 14 Chevrolet after a practice session at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “It was just a matter of how long it was going to take for the package to gel. I think we’re all pleasantly surprised at how quick that’s come.”

Heading into Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, Stewart is a solid eighth in the standings through the first three races. He finished eighth at the season-opening Daytona 500 and held down the same spot at California before dropping to 26th in Las Vegas last weekend. Even then, he ran in the top five much off the day.

“I felt like we would be competitive, but I think it’s unrealistic to think we would go three weeks and be that competitive week in and week out,” Stewart said. “We’ve been solid every session.”

He’s not the only surprise, either.

After struggling through most of its history and enduring an uncertain offseason, Michael Waltrip Racing has both of its cars inside the top 12 — the cutoff point that everyone looks at because it determines which drivers advance to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

David Reutimann is fifth and Waltrip, an owner-driver like Stewart, is holding down the 12th spot. Former Cup champion Bobby Labonte, who moved to a new team this season, is ninth in the points and getting ready to race at a track where he’s had a lot of success.

“I was always confident I could the job,” said Reutimann, who finished 22nd last year and dealt with sponsorship questions for the second straight winter. “It was just a matter of getting in the right situation.”

Stewart appeared to be in the right situation at Joe Gibbs Racing, but he couldn’t pass up the chance to take control of his own team. He was given 50 percent of Haas CNC Racing, a lowly team in the NASCAR pecking order, and transformed it into Stewart Haas Racing.

He had to line up sponsors. He had to hire an entirely new crew. He had to bring on a second driver, landing Ryan Newman to pilot the No. 39 car. All of those duties figured to leave Stewart with little time to develop a winning formula on the track.

But it’s all gone amazingly well, at least for the first three weeks.

“We could fall on our face this week,” he said. “but to go to a superspeedway (Daytona), a two-mile track (California) and a mile-and-a-half track (Las Vegas), and have good results and good performance each of those weeks, that’s something to be proud of.”

Stewart is even more encouraged by these first three races because he almost always got off to a slow start during his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, usually picking up steam as the temperature rose. Also, he was never an especially strong qualifier, but he had started no lower than 11th with his new team heading into Friday night time trials at Atlanta.

No wonder he had a big smile on his face when he climbed from the car after practice. He even chatted amiably with an official from Goodyear, the company that drew Stewart’s wrath at last fall’s Atlanta race for supposedly providing an inferior tire.

“I enjoy it a lot,” he said. “There’s a sense of pride every day when you come in the garage and see the 39 car and the 14 car sitting there. You realize the sponsors that you have and the group of guys you’ve assembled have enough faith in what you’re trying to do that they want to be a part of it. It makes you feel good.”

The bad boy of NASCAR sounded downright warm and fuzzy.

Reutimann, on the other hand, has always come across as a bit of a pessimist, constantly worrying about what might go wrong. Plenty did during his first two seasons at Michael Waltrip Racing.

As a rookie in 2007, Reutimann struggled to qualify for races, missing out on 10 events, and never finished higher than 13th. He finished 39th in the points and experienced one of the hardest crashes ever recorded at California Speedway, though he walked away with only minor injuries. At the end of the dismal season, his sponsors bailed.

Last year was a little better, but the 39-year-old Reutimann knew he was at a crossroads in his career.

“There were definitely times when I was looking around and saying, ‘Man, I don’t know if this thing is going to fly or not,'” he conceded. “Maybe you think about doing something different. Maybe you’re going to get to the point where you don’t have a choice in the matter. But at the midpoint last year, we started turning the corner. We were more relaxed. I told myself, ‘This is going to be OK.'”

Reutimann has been a top-10 qualifier the last two weeks and is coming off a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas, the best showing of his Sprint Cup career.

Not that he’s ready to celebrate.

“A couple of races doesn’t mean anything to this point,” Reutimann said. “Maybe if we make the Chase to win the championship, then maybe I’ll want to stand up here and say, ‘Thanks to all you guys who didn’t believe in me.’ But we’re not nearly to that point yet.”