NASCAR: Stewart-Haas a surprise at every turn

I scribbled these words onto a notepad more than a month ago.

The biggest surprise of the 2009 NASCAR season?

Tony Stewart.

And Ryan Newman.

Stewart-Haas Racing.

Not necessarily in that order.

Newman had finished third and Stewart 23rd at Talladega. “Nine races into the season after having taken on the project that was Haas CNC Racing, both Stewart and Newman are surprisingly competitive.” Those words were written back then, too. Stewart was fourth in the standings, and Newman 13th.

Why so much attention to something written but never printed? Because the Stewart-Haas Racing saga was important — not to mention surprising — even before the rest of the country dialed in and Racescribe had a chance to transcribe his notes.

Since Talladega, Stewart has had finishes of 2, 3, 1 and 19 at Richmond, Darlington, and the two Charlotte races; Newman has had finishes of 4, 4, 18 and 2.

Stewart’s venture into team ownership was a no-brainer in choosing the most surprising development of the season. Since then, Jeremy Mayfield has been busted for …. something, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team has been busted up … by owner Rick Hendrick.

But still, the Stewart regime reigns supreme in the area of raised eyebrows. Few drivers, based on their skills, deserve such an opportunity. This one was too good to pass up, and the only kind of deal that made leaving Joe Gibbs Racing worthwhile. In this day and age and economy, new owners — and young ones, at that — are not walking around like so many spare lugnuts.

Although the infrastructure was in place — and that made Stewart’s ownership venture exponentially easier than if he had gone the Robby Gordon route — no one in their right mind would have, could have, foreseen these two cars being inside the top 15. Yet Stewart is second overall, Newman seventh.

Newman, for all his bellyaching at Roger Penske’s shop, where team members thought he contributed more to the problem than the solution, seemed to go against his own comments as his season spiraled toward mediocrity. He wanted to go to a winner. By going to Stewart-Haas, it looked like he was simply following the money, or — giving him the benefit of the doubt — his Indiana roots.

Yet maybe Newman knew something about the team that the rest of us didn’t. Or maybe he’s just darn lucky. Whatever, five months into the season and he could not have made a better choice.

Through 12 races, Newman has eight finishes in the top 20, same as the first 12 races last year. But six of the finishes this year have been in the top 10; last season, he had only eight finishes in the top 10, none in the last 12 races.

Newman is currently seventh in the standings and has the U.S. Army team standing Army Strong.

In fairness, Kurt Busch is running third for Penske. David Stremme, who replaced Newman, is 22nd with five top 20s, but none inside the top 10. Sam Hornish Jr.  — although 30th — has also been a hugely pleasant performer with five top 10s and a pair of top 5 finishes in his second full year in the Sprint Cup Series.

There was some expectation that Stewart’s proclivity in the driver’s seat might give him an outside shot to make the 12-man chase for the championship, although it was difficult to know at whose expense. The fact that Newman is in the same position — inside the top 12 — is stunning. Newman may have been a rocket in the past, but by the time he left Penske he seemed a packet of old fireworks.

Perhaps spurred on by the change of scenery, and there’s a lot to be said for that, Newman has produced rabbits where only a top hat existed previously.

Stewart has been excellent as well. He has five top 10 finishes, and eight top 10s. Twelve races into the season, he is exactly halfway toward the totals he established last season in 36 races for one of the so-called super teams.

One-third of the way through 2009, Stewart is on pace to have the second-best season of his career: He had 17 top five finishes and 25 top 15s in his 2005 championship year.

And lest we forget, Stewart also  has a victory in the exhibition (and non-points) All-Star Race, and is second in the standings to a rejuvenated Jeff Gordon — the only other driver who could command such a sweetheart ownerhip deal (although Jimmie Johnson is coming). Yet it’s hard to imagine even Gordon having had such an impact as Stewart.

Interestingly, the often combative, often controversial two-time champion has been surprisingly mature in his role as a team owner.

Maybe so much responsibility has weighted Stewart’s feet and prevented them from entering his mouth, but it’s nice to see one of the great drivers of the series actually act like a great driver of the series.

And, maybe, one of the great owners, too.


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