By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The economy has tanked. Corporate sponsorships have become harder to come by than a priest at an atheist's convention.
And NASCAR is facing its most difficult season in decades, from the box office to the front office, from slumping attendance and TV ratings to an industry that has endured over 1,000 layoffs in nearly the last three months.
You'd think Tony Stewart would be so fraught with nightmares, abruptly sitting straight up in bed, slapping his forehead and mumbling to himself, "What the heck was I thinking?"
Still, nothing has deterred Stewart from going forward and tackling the biggest challenge of his racing career: 50 percent ownership of a major Sprint Cup team.
When given the opportunity to put his name first on the front door, and to gain an equal ownership stake for virtually nothing out of pocket, Stewart thought he'd hit the sport's biggest lottery.
Admittedly, there have been tough times along the way, but the two-time Sprint Cup champion is bound and determined to become just as successful in the board room as he is on the race track.
"Not at all," Stewart responded when asked if he's had any second thoughts since taking over as co-owner of Stewart Haas Racing.
"There's nights where you ask yourself if you can handle this, but there's never been a moment where I second-guessed my decision," Stewart said. "I've always been one of those guys that when I made a decision, I stopped and put myself at rest with that, go through with it and I just worry about moving forward with it."
Not only did the move from solely being a driver to an owner-driver combination take time to get adjusted to, fans may also have a hard time identifying Stewart.
For the record, he's driving the No. 14 Chevrolet, not the No. 20 Toyota that he drove last season for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Second, it's Stewart and not former endorsee Carl Edwards that will be seen in commercials urging fans to go to NASCAR's official office supply store, Office Depot.
Third, Stewart has a new crew chief (Darian Grubb instead of longtime signal-caller Greg Zipadelli, who elected to remain at JGR and work with Stewart's replacement, teen phenom Joey Logano), a new director of competition (Bobby Hutchins) and a new teammate (fellow Indiana native Ryan Newman).
That's just for starters. There's also over 50 new faces that have joined Stewart at SHR in the last few months as it grows into what everyone connected to it hopes will be a bonafide championship contender in the next two to three years.
"We got a later start than everybody because of how many people came in from different teams, by the time you get them all there and get the direction with everybody," Stewart said. "But I saw Zippy (former crew chief Greg Zipadelli) a couple days ago and he still had a lot of things to get caught up.
"There's a team that's been established for well over 10 years that's in the same boat. It made me feel better that our guys have really done a good job of getting caught up in such a short amount of time."
But knowing Stewart, that timetable may be longer than his patience can tolerate. Rather, he wants immediate results, even though he admits the development of his team still has a long way to go.
Stewart, who is among those being looked upon as a potential darkhorse to win next Sunday's Daytona 500, will have some extra emotional ammunition for the 51st running of the Great American Race.
Long-time idol and mentor A.J. Foyt will spend race day in Stewart's pit area, giving off an aura that could be just what Stewart needs to finally win and add a Daytona 500 trophy to his mantle.
"He's told me he's proud of me and that he was happy we got the 14 (car number, which has been the primary number Foyt has used in his racing career as a driver and owner)," Stewart said. "He knew why we got that; it's because of him. That made him real proud. He just told me to get that thing in victory lane – or I'll have to answer to him.
"Him being here shows how much he cares about what we're doing. It's an honor to have him here."
Stewart came close to winning last year's season-opening 500, finishing behind eventual winner Newman and runner-up Kurt Busch, his second-best career finish in the sport's biggest race (he was second in the 2004 classic).
While he's twice won the Pepsi 400 (now Coca-Cola 400) in the summer at Daytona, the 500 has been one race that has confounded Stewart.
But first things first. Stewart will be one of 28 drivers taking part in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway, followed by front row qualifying the next afternoon for the Daytona 500.
Even though it's a shorter race than the 500 and with a much different format and smaller field, a win in the Shootout would still be significant for Stewart, setting a tone and standard that he and Newman are immediate forces to be reckoned with right out of the gate.
"It's obvious, of course it would be," Stewart said. "You move to a different organization and with a new group of people, obviously it makes it that much better."
Many of their competitors feel Stewart and Newman – who is the defending Daytona 500 champ – are legitimate threats to win the biggest race of the year on Feb. 15, even if they are a "new" team for all intents and purposes.
While Stewart is honored to be thought of that way, he still has some hesitation that he can jump off to such high heights the first race out of the box.
"It's very humbling, but I don't know what to expect," Stewart said. "It's been a very humbling experience knowing that the guys we're racing with consider us ready to go and ready for us to be a contender each week."
But, don't forget, Stewart and Newman have chassis, motors and technical know-how from Hendrick Motorsports, the most successful organization in the business for the last 14 years, including the last three Sprint Cup championships (all by Jimmie Johnson) and eight titles overall since 1995.
In essence, SHR is just an extension of the Hendrick brand – and potentially the success, as well.
"Obviously, that was part of why we did what we did," Stewart said. "At the same time, it's the Stewart Haas people that are working on it and making decisions through practice and in the race. But, we rely heavily on what those guys are doing, too."
But when it comes to answering to someone if he makes a mistake and screws up, Stewart only has to look in the mirror to vent. At the same time, the process of building SHR has been one that has been both a character builder and a learning experience.
"When you haven't been a part of building a program like this, every day is a learning process and just being there to see it happen every day, to see it grow, that's the thing that makes you proud," Stewart said.
Still, Stewart the team owner doesn't have his priorities skewed when it comes to dealing with Stewart the race car driver.
"I can be an owner four days a week, but the other three days a week, I have to be a driver," Stewart said. "That's the way I want it and that's the only way it'll work."