By Jerry Bonkowski
I've been saying it since Atlanta in March: Tony Stewart was a (points paying) win waiting to happen.
Finally, he fulfilled my prediction Sunday at Pocono. Now, if I would have just followed my own advice and picked him in my fantasy picks for the race – but that's a whole other story.
Be that as it may, the first win with a new team is always the hardest. But given Stewart's penchant in past seasons for putting wins together at an often frequent pace once he gets on a roll, I think NASCAR fans may want to put a couple of things in perspective:
1) If he can build upon the momentum gained in Sunday's win, Stewart, who leads Jeff Gordon by 71 points, Jimmie Johnson by 103 points and teammate Ryan Newman (who is the next win waiting to happen) by 203 points, is going to remain in the points lead for quite some time.
2) Now that he's got his first points-earning win under his belt (along with his non-points win in the Sprint All-Star Race last month), Stewart is good for maybe another two or three -- or maybe even more – wins in the final 22 races. Given the way he's performed thus far this season, topped off with Sunday's win, Stewart could become the first real legitimate threat to Jimmie Johnson's bid to make NASCAR history and win four consecutive championships.
What's more, if there was any lingering doubt that Stewart's move from Joe Gibbs Racing – and the return to Chevrolet after one year of racing under the Toyota banner – was a big gamble, I think the results thus far this season (1 win, 7 top-5 and 10 top-10 finishes in the first 14 races) have proven without a question that he indeed made the right move.
Before Tony made it official that he was moving to the then Haas/CNC Racing to become a co-owner, I remember asking J.D. Gibbs a couple of times last year what I thought was a very simple question with a very simple solution: if Tony really wanted to stay with Joe Gibbs Racing for the rest of his NASCAR career, why couldn't Joe and J.D. give him a cut of the pie, maybe 15 or 20 percent?
It was such a simple and easy solution to keep a driver of Stewart's ability in-house for probably at least the next decade.
But each time I asked the younger Gibbs, he said giving Stewart an ownership share was "not an option," that it was something the Gibbs' just didn't do.
I can understand Joe and J.D. keeping things in the family and for the others in the Gibbs clan. But how successful of an organization would JGR been if Stewart was never a part of it? Would it have won two championships (not including Bobby Labonte's title in 2000) and 33 races without Stewart behind the wheel of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac-turned-Chevrolet-turned Toyota?
I asked Tony last year before he made the commitment to move to Haas/CNC if he really wanted to leave JGR. His response was no, he fully intended to stay there his entire career.
But when JGR balked at giving him an ownership share, coupled with Haas/CNC and Chevrolet wanting him so badly, he turned the negative of what JGR did to him into a multi-million dollar positive.
It's not like there hasn't been precedent. Jeff Gordon has a substantial chunk of ownership in Hendrick Motorsports, and has been listed as co-owner of Johnson's three straight championships.
And Rusty Wallace had almost 25 percent ownership in Penske Racing (only its NASCAR operation, not its open-wheel affiliate) for several years until he sold his share shortly before he retired after the 2005 season.
Maybe JGR put far too much early faith and premature expectations into Joey Logano, thinking he'd be able to replace Stewart in short order, even though Stewart is the type of driver you simply can't replace – no matter how talented an up-and-coming young driver may be.
Today, after Pocono, Stewart is No. 1, while Logano sits 25th in his first full season as Stewart's replacement. That's almost as bad as the big mistake Rick Hendrick made in letting Kyle Busch go in favor of bringing Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the fold.
As the NASCAR circuit puts Pocono in its rearview mirror and heads to Michigan this weekend, the younger Busch brother is ninth in the standings, while Earnhardt fell to 20th-place, despite this being the second race with new crew chief Lance McGrew.
To be fair, Busch was sixth in the standings coming into Pocono. He lost three spots after his mediocre 22nd-place finish Sunday, marking the fifth finish of 22nd or worse in his last nine points-paying races.
Earnhardt, on the other hand, has finished 20th or worse in six of his last eight points-paying starts. And while Busch is 312 points behind Stewart in the standings, Junior is nearly double that amount, 609 points back, with just 12 races remaining to turn things around and make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But let's not forget what we began talking about.
Yes, Sunday was Tony's day in Pocono, but just as much as I predicted he was indeed a win waiting to happen, I'm going to have to update that slightly.
Now, Stewart is multiple wins waiting to happen. He's first and Newman is fourth, while JGR's three drivers are ninth (Busch), 12th (Denny Hamlin) and 25th (Logano).
I just have to wonder, when does JGR realize it made a huge mistake by not giving Stewart a small piece of the pie for his long and meritorious years of service – instead of having its collective butt kicked for much of this season already – and likely will continue to be by both Stewart and Newman?