Taking the Wheel
Tony Stewart makes his debut as as a NASCAR owner-driver
By Larry Woody
The best way to get Tony Stewart to do something is to tell him it can’t be done. One of the most talented — and temperamental — drivers ever to strap himself inside a cockpit, Stewart will wear two racing hats in 2009 as a co-owner of the car he’ll try to pilot to a third NASCAR championship. He realizes that the skeptics doubt that he can juggle both jobs at once. “I like challenges,” he says. “I can’t guarantee that I’m going to [succeed], but if we don’t, I’m going to go down swinging.”
Stewart, nicknamed “Smoke” because of his blazing driving style (and also for his knack for fanning the flames of controversy), is the only driver to win championships in both the Indy Racing League and NASCAR. His NASCAR titles came in 2002 and 2005, part of his 10-year tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing. During that time, Stewart also won 32 Sprint Cup races and over $70 million in NASCAR gold.
He’s leaving that success and security to drive for himself, as co-owner of Stewart-Hass Racing. He’ll begin his double duties at Daytona in February with defending Daytona 500 champ Ryan Newman as his teammate.
The last owner-driver to win a NASCAR title was Alan Kulwicki in 1992. According to conventional wisdom, demands on owners and drivers nowadays are too burdensome for one person. But one thing Stewart has never been is conventional. “I wouldn’t have made the decision if I didn’t think it had the potential to be great,” he says. “Like I said, there are no guarantees, but we’re going to do everything we can to make it successful.”
One driver who famously failed as an owner-driver was Darrell Waltrip, a retired three-time champion and commentator for Fox Sports. Although Waltrip says he made “a major mistake” by taking on both jobs toward the end of his career, he thinks Stewart might just pull it off. “My mistake was trying to do it all, not delegating anything, and I don’t think Tony will do that,” Waltrip explains. “He’ll be surrounded by a lot of people on the business end of it. Also Tony has been involved as an owner of other race teams over the years, so he’s not going into this cold.”
Stewart owns two World of Outlaws race teams, two USA Midget Cars and Silver Crown operations, and a non-NASCAR racetrack. “Since 2001 when we started our first World of Outlaws team, I’ve started to understand what it means to me in life,” he says. “Owning racetracks and having race teams is something that I really enjoy.”
Stewart not only is facing an increased demand on his time, but for the first time in his NASCAR career he will take to the track without the steadying influence of Joe Gibbs and crew chief Greg Zippideli.
Nevertheless, he expresses no qualms about venturing into the unknown. At 37, he is planning for the future. “When you stop as a driver it’s hard to just walk away from the sport,” he says. “This [team ownership] gives me an avenue. If the day comes that I can’t drive a race car or don’t want to anymore, I can still be involved in NASCAR.”
In other words, fans can count on seeing Smoke around the racetrack for a long, long time.