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Posted: Wednesday February 18, 2009 12:51PM; Updated: Wednesday February 18, 2009 12:51PM
Bruce Martin Bruce Martin >
INSIDE RACING

Drivers weigh in on first testing ban test at Fontana (cont.)

For The Boys On Long Island

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Tommy Baldwin is the type of guy you want on your side in a back-alley brawl.

Big, strapping and sometimes mean, Baldwin is as adept at using a wrench to adjust someone's attitude as he is at adjusting a chassis.

He would have been a perfect fit for NASCAR's early days when the fight after the race was more entertaining than that race itself. Of course, in those early days he would have been ostracized for being from Long Island, N.Y.

The son of "Tiger Tom" Baldwin, he came to NASCAR in 1996 along with close friend Kevin "Bono" Manion. They both rose to the level of crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series and Tommy Baldwin would experience the thrill of guiding his car into victory lane in 2002. That's when Ward Burton drove the Baldwin-prepared Dodge to the Daytona 500 win for Bill Davis Racing.

Through mergers and a tough economy, the big teams in NASCAR began to feel the pinch and the car count started to dwindle. But Baldwin saw that as an opportunity and on Jan. 5 he decided to form Tommy Baldwin Racing with the hopes of making it into the starting lineup for the 51st Daytona 500.

Putting together a team of scrappers including driver Scott Riggs, Baldwin was able to fight his way into the field when Riggs finished eighth in Thursday's first Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifying race. Riggs went on to finish 25th in the Daytona 500. That gave Baldwin a $273,513 return on his initial investment.

"There is nothing like winning the Daytona 500 but this is a completely different type of feeling," Baldwin said. "This is pretty gratifying. It's a humbling experience because I've been pretty overwhelmed by all the support of the guys helping out. We have a really small race team with a really big heart."

Baldwin has never been short on self-confidence but he realized there was some trepidation on whether his late-starting team would make the Daytona 500 field.

"It's very gratifying to make the race," Baldwin said last Friday afternoon as he prepared for Sunday's race. "But that is what we were set up to try to do was make the race. We were a little disappointed after qualifying but after practice on Wednesday we had a really good race car that was capable of running up front in the 150s.

"We proved to ourselves and I think we proved to everybody out there we are for real. We are serious about what we are trying to do. If we put good equipment with good people and a good race car driver we are capable of running up front."

Despite the struggling economy, Baldwin realized that if he had the money this would be a great time to start a NASCAR team. With so many high quality crew members laid off during the offseason, he could lure some top talent to his operation.

The key, of course, was having the money to get it started.

"There are a ton of people out of work unfortunately but fortunately for me it was a gain for the situation our race team is in," Baldwin said. "Hopefully we can pick up some stuff soon and hire the good people that have been working every day for us for nothing for the hope of getting a job."

Baldwin said he has a "fighter's mentality" and that was a key quality to have in order to survive in the economic downturn that NASCAR is struggling with.

"We really didn't have a choice; there was nothing else available out there to go work for somebody," Baldwin said. "I evaluated it for a few weeks before we got let go by Bill Davis. I looked at all the 'what ifs' and 'shouldas' and 'couldas' and 'wouldas.' I looked at the economy, the equipment, the cars that were available and the people that were available or going to be available. I felt between the people and the cars and the no testing and the COT with no rules changes this was the best opportunity that anyone would have to enter the Sprint Cup ranks."

Baldwin admits he is at "full risk" financially with his team but making the Daytona 500 is worth $250,000. It also lets potential sponsors know the team is "for real." On Friday, he said 10 companies had contacted the team about possible sponsorships for Las Vegas and on through the season.

"I'm going to run every week until I run out of money and then I'm going to load up and still go to the next race," Baldwin said. "I'm going to do that and every time we're racing on a track we are going to show everybody we have a really good race car and a really good race team and try to find that partner that wants to be a part of us."

Baldwin's car and the car that owner/driver Jeremy Mayfield put into the field for his race team were cars that Baldwin built while at Bill David Racing. Toyota has also provided engineering support to the operation.

Making the race was not only for the boys back in Long Island but also for those who aren't afraid to fight for a place in this sport.

"I think it's for all the little guys out there, all the short trackers, the guys that want to take shots and make it," Baldwin said. "We have proven that if you have a dream and a will you can conquer some things."

The Missing Links

For those who didn't know better, it would be easy to think that A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart are father and son.

To see them strolling through the garage area at Daytona International Speedway and into the media center, they are even built the same, although Foyt's waistline is somewhat larger than Stewart's portly belly.

They even have the same temperament. Both are fun-loving pranksters but do the wrong thing or ask the wrong question and they can be as mean as a swarm of killer bees.

Although Stewart's father, Nelson, is usually close by, it's easy to see that Stewart patterns himself after his racing hero, A.J. Foyt.

"Somewhere down the line some genes must have crossed," Foyt said of the similarities between himself and Stewart.

In an age where NASCAR racing has been homogenized by the likes of Jimmie Johnson and his nice-guy, corporate image, Stewart remains the hero for the average, ordinary guy.

He is the hero of the everyman, just like Foyt was when he was America's greatest, home-grown race driver, the first to win the Indianapolis 500 four times and the only driver to in the Indy 500, Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

What connects these two drivers is the path that got them to the top. They are both products of the grass-roots level of racing and their path to the big-time went through the USAC.

"Well I'm very, very happy to see because he came up the hard way," Foyt said of Stewart. "It wasn't an easy road for Tony. I'm glad to see him where he is today. I pull for him quite a bit.

"What I see in Tony is he calls a spade a spade and says it like it is and I think that is kind of what made AJ what he is today because I think so many people sugar coat so damn much stuff and don't really tell the fans the truth. Every time I've ever said something good or bad I meant everything and I really believed it. That is one thing I really respect Tony for compared to a lot of the drivers over here, they sugar coat it. I don't know maybe it's good today but I think you've got to live with them decisions good or bad. I guess he's, excuse my French, been known to be an a------."

To Stewart, that's a compliment.

"Don't worry that's not the first time I've heard him call me that," Stewart admitted.

Foyt gave Stewart his first IndyCar test back in 1995 when Stewart was becoming the first driver ever to win all three USAC championships in the same season. But when Stewart got his first IndyCar ride, it was with Team Menard in 1996, the first season of the Indy Racing League.

But, if circumstances had been different, he might have been his IndyCar driver in 1996 thanks in part to Stewart's agent, Cary Agajanian, who is a friend of Foyt's.

"I felt like me and him wouldn't get along and that was probably the biggest reason that Tony never drove for me at the Indy Cars," Foyt said. "I definitely wanted him to but I was scared and so easy to get along with I probably wouldn't have got along with his agent too well and I'd rather stayed friends with all of them. I would have to say that was probably the only reason I didn't really want Tony to run for me. I did want him to run for me don't get me wrong but I just didn't feel like I could get along with his agent and he was a good friend of mine too so I'd rather just kept the friendship than having to go to war."

When Stewart became an owner/driver at Stewart-Haas Racing, he wanted Foyt's No. 14 on his Chevrolet race cars to honor his racing hero. He invited Foyt to Daytona to be in his pit area for the Daytona 500.

"Honestly, it has been a huge honor to have A.J. here with us," Stewart said. "We have had a great friendship, known each other a long time. Nobody gives me a harder time than this man, but, it is all in fun. We have fun. We are glad he is here. This is obviously a huge year for us, starting this new team and having A.J. here to kick it off with us is definitely a highlight for sure. It is the icing on the cake for us."

Stewart has tremendous respect for Foyt but he also knows his personality. That is why Foyt's radio in the pit area had a button to talk that didn't work.

"He gave me a radio yesterday and I went to holler at him a couple times and found out the button didn't work," Foyt said.

"All you have to do is drive for him once and listen to him on it and you realize why," Stewart said. "He demands performance out there so, if he doesn't think you are in the right spot in the right time, he is going to tell you about it. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but I had enough stuff to think about yesterday. We just kind of worked with our spotter and worked with our crew chief.

"I am sorry, I hate to tell you that," Stewart said to Foyt.

Foyt gave Stewart an A-minus for his effort in the qualifying race and was asked why he wasn't graded higher?

"He ran second," Foyt said. "Very simple."

To honor Foyt, Stewart's car has a decal on it that says "Everyone needs a hero" with Foyt's signature. The logo was placed on the rear quarter panel.

"We put it on the part of the car that normally gets the wheel rounds on it," Stewart said. "That is another reason he is not getting a radio that talks cause as soon I get a tire mark on it, he will yell at me."

And, leave it to Foyt to always have the last word between these two.

"It will get rubbed off real quick with tire marks," Foyt said. "That's all right.

"Remember paybacks are hell."

Quote Of The Week

"The way I remember it, Cale started punching my fist with his nose." -- Bobby Allison recalled the legendary 1979 Daytona 500 that ended in a fight between himself and Cale Yarborough after a crash that involved Donnie Allison on the last lap of the race. Sunday's Daytona 500 was the 30th Anniversary of that race that put NASCAR on its path to growth. It was the first time the Daytona 500 had been televised live from start to finish by CBS Sports.

Quote Of The Week II -- The Broken Record Edition

"I love Mark Martin, he's a character, but if you look back historically I think every interview you see Mark in you can just hit the record button. 'Man, I'm having the time of my life. This is the best race car. This is the best group of guys. I've never seen anybody work so hard in my life.' I see it over and over. It's like a replay. It's like a bad dream. I'm just telling you what I see on TV. I see the same thing in the interview and there's nothing wrong with that. You've got to be positive, right? He's being positive and that's Mark Martin -- being positive. When he went over to DEI it was the chance of a lifetime and they were the best cars in the garage. I think it's the same thing now, but I would have to say that Hendrick probably has the best stuff in the garage with Jimmie Johnson winning the championship three years in a row."-- Greg Biffle on former teammate Mark Martin.

Quote Of The Week III -- Hasn't This Happened To You Before Edition

"I've really been enjoying the last two days a lot more than expected or maybe I thought I would. The only mix up in the whole week so far is that right now I'm locked out of my room in the hallway at the Waldorf. They've turned our keys off so me and Katie are sitting here in the hallway doing this call (teleconference), but, other than that, it's been really enjoyable." -- Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth.

What I'm Looking Forward To This Week

"After getting deathly ill on Race Day with what has become known as the annual 'Daytona Crud' aka as the flu or a sinus infection, I'll be checking out Sunday's race at Fontana from my couch with antibiotics, a Neti Pot and Flonase nearby.

 
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