By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
FORT WORTH, Texas – Every week, every racetrack on the Sprint Cup circuit, the same questions come over and over to Tony Stewart.
Are you surprised at how well your team has started? How do you like being an owner? Have things gone the way you thought they would? What's been the key to the quick start?
And every week, Stewart patiently – well, usually – gives the same replies, over and over.
I'll cut some slack to reporters who are local-based to their respective tracks and only see Stewart once or twice a year. But the national reporters are a whole other thing. They ask Stewart many of those same inane questions every week.
It's almost as if they're trying to catch him in a lie, that becoming a Sprint Cup team owner really is the pits, that he hates being one, wishes he never did it and wishes he could go back to Joe Gibbs Racing.
All of which is, obviously, untrue.
Sure, Stewart may have a little darkness under his eyes. Perhaps he's lost a bit of sleep still trying to get full funding for teammate Ryan Newman's car.
Sure, Stewart has a lot more responsibility on his plate that has caused him to maybe indulge in another kind of plate for comfort and get a bit out of shape in the process. We know he loves food.
And sure, Stewart may have dark hair on top of his head, but his off-and-on beard tells a significant truth: he's sprouting some tell-tale stubble that is becoming more and more interspersed – okay, I'll be kind and call it "highlighted" – with some obvious grey and white follicles. That's part of the price you pay for being the guy in charge, the guy that has to do most of the worrying. Look at guys like Bill Clinton and George Bush -- they came into office with, at best, salt-and-pepper hair, only to leave looking like they aged 30 years in just eight.
Being Tony Stewart is not fun and games. He's one of the most competitive racers you'll ever find. But he's also one of the most astute racers-turned-businessmen in the game.
He knew what he was getting into with what was then Haas/CNC Racing – now known as Stewart-Haas Racing. To get his name first on the front door of the company, he was savvy: he didn't even have to invest a penny at the outset, simply allowing use of his name in exchange for a full 50 percent share.
With that kind of business savvy and acumen, maybe President Obama should put Stewart in charge of the ongoing financial crisis. I bet he could have it fixed inside six months, knowing how tough a businessman and negotiator he is, along with the help of his business manager, Eddie Jarvis.
Together, Stewart and Jarvis have built an empire that is not only flourishing in some very tough times in NASCAR and out, they've also found a way to build for the future, so that when the economy comes back, Stewart-Haas will be positioned to become one of the top teams in the business.
And they're already on the way to that even in these tough times.
He's done so by hiring some great minds, like director of competition Bobby Hutchens, crew chief Darian Grubb (for Stewart's car) and Tony Gibson (for Newman's car). He didn't just hire them to be his friends; he hired them because they know what the hell they're doing – again, another reason why SHR is in the position it is in so early into its tenure.
"I’ve been able to focus every week when we get to the race track on the driver’s side," Stewart said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, preparing for Sunday's Samsung 500. "That’s why we’ve got Bobby Hutchens and he does a great job of filling that owner role during the weekends and then during the week we concentrate on the car owner’s side. But the schedule has eased up a little bit for me. Once we got all the key people in place, it started giving me back a little more time in my schedule."
Grubb, in particular, has stepped up in a major way, more than comfortably filling the shoes of Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's long-time crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"Everything has been so smooth," Stewart said. "There has never been a point where I've even been wound up about anything so far this year, which has kind of been nice. It has been relaxing during the three days each weekend.
"I am sure we will get to that stage, that was something I told him before was 'Hey, there are times I am going to get wound up on the radio; you can't take it personal.' He understands that, you have to remember, he worked with Dale, Jr. and Dale likes to say a whole lot on the radio too. It is nothing new for him."
So, given all those elements – getting the right personnel to run things for him, building things with an effective business plan and still managing to drive at the top of his game – it's really no surprise that Stewart and his race team have jumped out to the kind of success start that they have.
If anything, it would be more of a surprise if they hadn't, given Stewart's acumen both behind the wheel and in the corporate boardroom.
"I am busier than I have been," Stewart said. "At the same time, it has been a comfortable busy. We have enjoyed everything we have been doing. It is a new challenge and I have always liked new challenges. I feel very content in this role right now."
Now if he just could do what he does best -- win races. The proof is in the results, and don't surprised if someday he's asked, "How does it feel to take your own race team to a Sprint Cup championship?"