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Tony Stewart, in his new owner-driver role, can take inspiration from Robby Gordon

Tony Stewart, during NASCAR's Preseason Thunder Fanfest at Daytona...where in a few days the two-time Cup champion hopes to win his first Daytona 500. (Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Mulhern

   Several thousand fans braved a chilly Friday night to get autographs from a dozen NASCAR stars in town for Daytona's January FanFest, and to listen to the Daytona 500 drivers chitchat on stage.
   And out on the track throughout the day, instead of the roar of 30 or so race cars prepping for the season opener, there was just the noise from a few Petty Driving Experience cars, with Average Joes at the wheel for a few laps.
   NASCAR's testing ban may take its toll on Daytona 500 attendance, because there isn't the usual January hoopla here. And track executives and area businesses are worried, and cutting prices.
    Owner-driver Tony Stewart isn't immune to the weak economy. He's moved from the security of working for Joe and J. D. Gibbs' team to start up his own two-car operation, with Ryan Newman as teammate.
   However Stewart so far seems comfortable with his new role.
   "It's going to feel a lot different coming here as an owner and a driver, but it's something we're looking forward to," Stewart says.
   "We've had a great off-season.  We have enjoyed everything we've done with the team. It's probably been the most exciting off-season I can remember."
   But then he's got to figure out now not just how to out-race Rick Hendrick's men and Jack Roush's men but also how to match wits with those two powerhouse operations back in the shop.
    Stewart will have technical support from Hendrick's Chevrolet operation. However, that hasn't been a recipe for great success for others so far.
   Much of the burden now, for the Stewart-Newman team, rests on the shoulders of technical director Bobby Hutchens.
   Whether Stewart himself knows how to run a race team will be one of this season's hot topics. And with NASCAR's testing ban, well, he's got a tough row to hoe.
   The driving, though, will be easy, he figures. "Once we get on the airplane to leave North Carolina, I put the driver hat on," Stewart says. "That's the great thing the way we've got it set up now -- when I show up at the track, all I have to worry about is driving.
   "We've got a good system with Bobby Hutchins and the two crew chiefs (Tony Gibson and Darian Grubb), and I don't have to worry about being a car owner."
    Easy for Stewart to say now….
    At least he can learn from others' mistakes. And  cranking up his own in-house engine program certainly isn't on the agenda. He says he's comfortable letting Hendrick's motor shop handle the power.
   "That's where the demise of Darrell Waltrip's team came," Stewart says, referring to the in-house engine program Waltrip launched, ill-fatedly, during his final years as driver on the tour.
    "We've got a great partnership with Hendrick, and they've got, if not the best engine program, one of the best out there.
   "Don't take something that's not broke and try to fix it."
    So, on the eve of the Daytona 500, Stewart exudes a calm confidence.
   "I feel everything is exactly where it needs to be right now," he says. "We're a little bit behind getting cars built. But having that luxury of not having to worry about an engine program is helping us get caught up.
    "And having Hendrick chassis -- all we have to do is hang our bodies.
   "We're in a good situation not having to worry about those two variables and just focusing on building the cars."
   Well, maybe so, but will Stewart and Newman be competitive, or just out there?
    And this certainly doesn't seem a moment ripe to launch an expensive deal like this, even if General Motors did help pick up the tab of maybe $30 million or so to help Stewart get going.
   Stewart insists no second thoughts: "This was an opportunity that picked us. We didn't go out and pick it.
   "But it shows timing is everything. We were able to secure sponsorships (Office Depot and Old Spice) and then get Ryan signed and having the U.S. Army come on board. It makes me really proud as an owner we were able to get all that done before the bottom fell out of the economy.
   "I was very fortunate to be offered an opportunity. If it were not for an opportunity like this, I don't think we would have had this, with the economy the way it is now."
   On the plus side, so to speak, Stewart and Newman have a good pick of crewmen to chose from, with the stunning wave of layoffs in the sport over the past two months since the Homestead finale.
    "I am surprised -- I never thought we would see the fallout of employees we have seen released from teams…not only in the Charlotte area but in Indianapolis too…drag teams, Indy-car teams. 
   "The economy has really hurt all of motorsports. 
   "But I guess that's probably been the one thing that's been positive for us -- when it came to hiring more people, it gave us a buffet atmosphere, because there were so many available." 
   And what kind of work ethic will Stewart have as a car owner?
   He's learning it's a stout challenge.
   "Probably the biggest thing is I actually can get up at 6:00 in the morning," Stewart says, with a humorous nod at drivers' notorious penchant for sleeping till five minutes before practice starts.
   "I did that Wednesday when we had to fly down to New Smyrna to test.
   "I didn't realize there was actually a 6:00 a.m. until this year.  That was a shock." 
   Still, Stewart says he's having fun with the challenge of it all
   "This is definitely the single largest change I've had in my life," he said. "But I've been surprised at how much I've enjoyed it so far."
   Stewart, who lives just outside Indianapolis, has been spending more time in the Concord shop than he anticipated. "But I've really absolutely enjoyed being in Charlotte all the time.
   "I've enjoyed being at the shop -- seeing our guys, and seeing how it's progressing." 
   And Stewart's staff is now quite large. "Before we started the Cup team, it was 46 employees I had full-time. Now it's almost 200. It's grown quite a bit in a short amount of time.
   "But it's really been a fun transition. 
    "I'm comfortable with it…which is kind of surprising.  It makes me think of the beginning of the end is coming or something.
   "It's really been a lot of fun to be a part of this process."
   Is this project part of Stewart's grand career-endgame?  What's the bigger picture here?
   "Obviously I have no idea," Stewart, who will turn 38 this year, says. "I haven't really set a date when I want to stop driving. 
   "The races you haven't won are always the ones that are important, and obviously the Daytona 500 is at the top of that list.
   "But we've been lucky enough to win at all but three of the tracks we run at (Las Vegas, California and Darlington still missing)."
   However, won't the testing ban hurt his new team? If this ban turns into a guerilla war, as developed two years ago, when the sport's big dogs got into a major mid-week battle at various test tracks around the country to develop the new race car, Stewart could be hurting.
   But Stewart insists "I still think NASCAR's new policy is going to save teams money.
   "Ryan has tested twice; I've only tested once. If we could test at the tracks we race, guys would be testing all the time.
   "So I think it's going to help the teams save money.
    "I don't think you're ever going to eliminate that side of it (the outside testing). But that's the balance NASCAR is having a hard time trying to figure out -- exactly what's the right thing to do, that's not going to just devastate one company or another, and keep them all involved."
   And so far Stewart doesn't seem that worried about any of this, really.
   Maybe it's the adrenalin.
   "I've been more excited this off-season than I've ever been…other than coming into my rookie year," Stewart, who broke into the Cup world in 1999, says.
   "It's just been so different….and any time you do something different, you're always excited about it."
   So can Stewart now relate better to Robby Gordon, the tour's top independent operator….albeit sometimes struggling.
   "He's proof you can still be an independent car owner and be successful," Stewart says.
   "He hasn't had the success in that he's won, but it's still proof you can exist as an independent car owner and go out and compete.
   "He got himself back in the top-35 in points, and that's a huge accomplishment in this series, with multi-car teams.    "For him to do that, as an independent car owner, has been a big inspiration."

The other half of the Stewart equation: teammate, and defending Daytona 500 winner, Ryan Newman. (Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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