Preseason Rank: 6
After eight seasons with the Chase system, only three men have laid claim to a title. Tony Stewart was the second, before Jimmie Johnson went on his five-year, record-setting tear. It was somewhat fitting that Stewart — Johnson’s polar opposite on and off the track — would put the end-cap on that historic run.
For most teams, an ascendance to the top would be enough to keep the core pieces in place. But not Stewart’s. The temperamental driver/owner enters 2012 shuffling more personnel than half the teams he beat in the Chase. Darian Grubb, who maintained remarkable poise to take the title after being told last October his services wouldn’t be needed in 2012, is out as crew chief. Instead, Steve Addington will call the shots for Stewart after signing a three-year deal in November. Addington led Kurt Busch to an 11th-place points finish in each of the last two seasons, picking up four victories in the process. He also has a top-10 points finish with Kyle Busch prior to his term at Penske Racing. That’s some extensive experience working with high-maintenance drivers, which the passionate Stewart certainly can be if he isn’t happy with the situation in any given race. That emotion, paired with Grubb’s engineering style and passive nature, created a clash over time that couldn’t be fixed.
The right mental mix is important when it comes to Stewart, the epitome of old-school racing. It’s not hard to picture the 40-year-old Indiana native racing — and winning — in any era of NASCAR’s 60-year history. He’s aggressive and quick to deliver a return shot if he feels it’s warranted, but don’t confuse that fire with foolishness. He takes risks — just not uncalculated ones. He’s been taken behind the woodshed by NASCAR, and he’s unafraid to take someone else there. Just ask the media; “Smoke” turns every press conference into a fiery roast of whatever questioner he sees fit. At times irascible and at others endearing, Stewart is the sport’s everyman. He eats Whoppers, drinks beer, chases skirts and tells it like it is. At a time when many drivers wouldn’t admit to any of those habits, Stewart enjoys immense popularity.
That independent nature led him to become a co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, and while many drivers have tried and failed at team ownership, Stewart did it right. In fact, the 2011 championship makes him the first owner/driver in two decades to win the title (Alan Kulwicki was the last to do it, in 1992). But that’s where Stewart turns “new school.” As even he freely admits, the key comes through connections, buying into an established, albeit second-tier team, co-owned by Gene Haas and forging valuable technical alliances to move the operation forward. The duo run chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, marking the sixth consecutive year that formidable combination has won the Cup title. It is equipment with both speed and durability. Since buying the team in 2009, Stewart has not suffered a single engine failure.
Financially, the No. 14 car remains on track as sponsors Mobil 1 and Office Depot and are back in 2012 for Stewart’s title defense, along with full-time teammate Ryan Newman. SHR is adding a third car on a part-time basis for Danica Patrick, but whether that will be a distraction for Stewart is debatable — it depends how much the media circus and any Patrick rookie mistakes get turned toward him. The bigger questions surround Addington and Stewart’s former crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, Greg Zipadelli, who came on as Competition Director in December.
Zippy and Addington worked together at JGR for years, and of course, Zipadelli was atop Stewart’s pit box for his two previous title-winning campaigns. It seems odd to make such high-profile moves after a Chase when everything went so well. But the firing of Grubb was done well before then, and SHR was in need of a competition director since former boss Bobby Hutchens was dismissed in June. In short, the hirings, on paper, look to boost SHR, not derail a good thing.
But if anyone can turn change into championships, it’s Stewart, who has roared through just about every type of American motorsports. He was the first driver to win the ASA Triple Crown (championships in the Sprint, Silver Crown and Midget divisions in a single year). He also has an IndyCar title to go with his three in Cup. Yes, Tony Stewart is always a threat, and he will remain so until the day he either clinches the title or is mathematically eliminated from contention.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
Few would have expected Tony Stewart’s championship performance in the 2011 Chase at the outset of the 10-race playoff — including Stewart. Showing his never-say-die attitude and methodical, no-nonsense approach, he proved to the world he truly wanted the championship and would do anything to accomplish that goal. After winning his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, Stewart has solidified his spot among NASCAR’s best.
“One of the all-time great talents in motorsports history,” one garage-area competitor says of Stewart.
“I questioned whether (SHR) could win a championship running Hendrick stuff, but the fact that Tony has so many guys who know what they’re doing working for him is the difference,” one crew chief said. “Stewart-Haas isn’t exactly a turn-key operation with Hendrick. They get good stuff from Hendrick and make it better.”
“Five wins in the chase,” another says. “He batted .500. Hall of Fame performance for a guy that will be in there as soon as there is a display that’s filled with dirt.”
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 19
Laps Led: 913
Laps Completed: 10,579
Lead Lap Finishes: 31
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 21
Average Start: 17.7
Average Finish: 12.0
After First 26 Races: 9th
Final Points Standing: 1st
Driver Rating: 96.0 (6th)
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