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Tony Stewart is undoubtedly enjoying this. Once the enfant terrible of NASCAR, only slightly more famous for his two championships than for his temper tantrums and fistfights, he has reinvented himself this season as the mild-mannered co-owner of Cup racing's most surprising new team. Look at the way he smiled contentedly through a pair of press conferences at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte last Thursday, self-deprecatingly answering questions, including more than a few about his turbulent past. As one bemused reporter remarked after the show was over, "Who was that guy, and what has he done with Tony?"
Stewart has plenty of reasons to be happy. He left Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last season to partner with owner Gene Haas (who was only recently released after serving 16 months in prison for tax fraud). Stewart is second in the Cup standings after finishing 14th in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 on Monday and got the team's first win at the All-Star race in Charlotte on May 16. His teammate Ryan Newman, who won Stewart-Haas's first pole on Thursday night, is seventh in the standings, and both are favorites to make the 12-driver Chase. That's quite a start for an outfit that wasn't supposed to be competitive until at least the second half of the season.
Perhaps we all should have seen this coming. Stewart, after all, knows the business from the bottom up. In addition to his experience with open-wheel racing, he has won championships as a sprint car impresario and holds an ownership stake in three speedways. "Tony doesn't take vacations," says Rick Hendrick, the owner of powerful Hendrick Motorsports. "He's thinking about racing 24 hours a day."
Certainly much of the success is attributable to the team's close relationship with Hendrick. Stewart buys his engines and chassis from Hendrick, and the two teams share some testing and practice information. One of Stewart's first moves was to hire Hendrick engineer Darian Grubb to run his car's team. That's made a world of difference. "We always had Hendrick engines," says Sean Haggerty, the front suspension mechanic for Stewart's car. "We just didn't know how to use them."
Stewart, meanwhile, has emerged as a gifted leader and motivator. His name and reputation alone were enough to land the team major sponsorship deals from Office Depot, Old Spice, the U.S. Army and Burger King. He runs his team from the floor of the shop, making wisecracks to his crew members even while he's checking under car hoods, recording what he sees in a notebook that he carries at all times. "It's important for the [crew] to understand that I'm no different than they are," he says.
By buffing the rough edges from his personality, Stewart has put his new team's focus on what he does best: drive up front. "Guys are happy if we have to stay late now," says Haggerty. "We're expected to win races."
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