Greeson: Where there's Smoke there's coolness now

Greeson: Where there's Smoke there's coolness now

June 28th, 2009 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Nascar

Tony Stewart has sped throughout all aspects of his career with the same heavy-footed, carefree-bordering-on-careless approach that has made him a championship driver in everything with wheels.

His on-track success has been muffled only by his off-track antics that ranged from amusing to boorish to often unacceptable.

As a driver "Smoke" has always been easy to love, but as a sports celebrity he was frequently difficult to take. What should have been the face of NASCAR -- especially in the star-vacuum environment in the days following Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona -- was only truly appreciated when Stewart's face shield was down.

That's what makes his success as the owner/driver for Stewart-Haas Racing so special.

Maybe he needed the challenge. Maybe he was the poster boy for the adage that idle hands -- and mouths -- are the devil's playground.

Everyone said he was nuts, leaving an established team such as Joe Gibbs Racing for a struggling team heading into the worst economic times the sport has seen since marketing overtook moonshine as the driving force behind NASCAR's scenes.

He left Gibbs, one of the sport's power owners. He left longtime crew chief Greg Zipadelli. He left the comfy confines of the Home Depot No. 20, one of the sport's most stable and recognizable rides. He left it all behind for a two-team operation that had finished 30th and 43rd in points in 2008.

Questions were everywhere.

What can't be questioned today, though, as the Sprint Cup drivers get ready to run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, is whether he was up to the task.

Stewart moved quickly, hiring good people from almost every established NASCAR team. He surprised no one when he added Ryan Newman as the company's second driver, but from there the surprises seem endless.

Stewart owns the points lead heading into today's race, and behind the wheel he has been the model of consistency -- not his strength in the past. He has a NASCAR-best 12 top-10 finishes in 16 races this year, building an 84-point edge over Jeff Gordon with 10 races left before the Chase for the Cup.

Stewart has eight top-fives, and his win at Pocono was the first for an owner/driver since Ricky Rudd did it in 1998. He is the first owner/driver to lead the points race since Alan Kulwicki won the championship in 1992.

His accomplishments as an owner are more impressive. He overhauled the existing teams, made a series of shrewd hires and has embraced the nuances that go with being the boss.

"You go there and just spend time with your guys," Stewart told the Boston Globe. "I know that everybody is doing what they're supposed to be doing. I really don't have to worry about it. It's been nice from that standpoint to be able to go there and not have to walk around as an owner and check on everything. I'm walking through there as a driver and thanking those guys for their hard work."

It has worked in high-speed fashion.

As Stewart sets the points pace, Newman is sixth in the standings, and the organization as a whole has embraced Stewart's familiarly aggressive and newly found positive approach.

"They were beat mentally a lot of times before they even got to the track," said Bobby Hutchens, who is in his first year with Stewart-Haas as the director of competition after a two-decade career with Richard Childress Racing. "Hopefully, we've put that 180 degrees out of their minds."

That's certainly a safe assumption.