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Tony Stewart taking aiming at another NASCAR championship...but first he needs a points win

Tony Stewart (14) and teammate Ryan Newman (39) are becoming a potent 1-2 punch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


By Mike Mulhern


   POCONO, Pa.

   Warning, warning: notoriously slowing-starting Tony Stewart is off a red-hot start this season, his first as an owner-driver. And that could mean big trouble for the usual gang of championship contenders.
   Steward's forte is working hot, slick tracks, in the middle of summer.
   And we're not there yet; those days are yet to come.
   This weekend's Pocono 500 – and  just about every driver in the field would prefer this be a 400-miler – should be cool and misty, maybe even rainy, something this mountain area just west of New York City (90 minutes east) is known for.
   For him to come out of the box this fast – a league-leading nine top-10s over the year's first 13 events of the 26-race regular season – is quite unexpected.
   Tony Stewart atop the Sprint Cup standings? This is the earliest in a season that Stewart has led the Cup tour standings.
   Consider this, in his 2002 championship run, Stewart didn't get to the points lead until only seven races to go.
   And consider this, in his 2005 title run, Stewart didn't grab the points lead until Race 21.
   And look at this – teammate Ryan Newman is fifth in the standings. This isn't just a one-man show.
   Stewart, who won Pocono in June of 2003, has another mark to hit – he's still to win a points-paying Cup event this season, though he did win the All-Star race two weeks ago. The last owner-driver to win a tour event was Ricky Rudd, in 1998.
   The benchmark in this (though skeptics will note the Rick Hendrick horsepower at Stewart's command) is the late Alan Kulwicki, who won the 1992 NASCAR title, as an underfunded owner-driver, in one of the sport's great stories.
    Back then Stewart was just a little-known Sprint Car/Midget racer. NASCAR really wasn't even on his radar scope. His big game plan was Indianapolis.
   "Everybody respected Alan because he was an owner/driver and because of what he was able to accomplish," Stewart says.
   One of the powers behind the scenes in the sudden rise of the Stewart-Newman operation is veteran team manager Bobby Hutchens, Richard Childress' one-time right-hand man, who joined Stewart-Newman when Dale Earnhardt Inc. hit the skids last fall.
    Hutchens, Stewart says, "let's you focus on what you're doing.  You're not worried about a different variable in the equation that you're trying to fix. 
    "It definitely gives you that much more flexibility and confidence knowing that all you have to do is go out and drive the racecar. 
     "We've had that confidence to begin with anyway, because Bobby Hutchens has done such a great job of coming in, taking over the 'owner' role not only during race weekends but during the week, keeping everybody organized and making sure we have the equipment we need to go to the racetrack on the weekends. 
   "It's taken a lot of weight off my shoulders, to where all I've got to do is go out and do what I'm used to doing -- drive the racecar."
   And Hutchens is doing all this while helping his wife battle cancer.
    Putting good people in the right positions is key in this sport, and it's not as easy as it might seem, because chemistry is sometimes fickle.
   People. "That's  true more so now than ever," Stewart says. "And it's not just in racing; it's that way in business, it's that way in life.
    "I learned that from Joe Gibbs. 
     "You can have the best of everything, but if you don't have the people in the right places doing the right jobs, and people you trust -- that you know you don't have to look over – that's how you become efficient."
   And in a sports business that runs from early January through Thanksgiving, with 38 major events, and only four weekends off each season, efficiency is crucial.
     The line in this sport is once you get behind, it's almost impossible to catch back up, because there is so much competition.
     Conversely, once you get ahead, you can carry momentum.
    Stewart, though, adds another element – one that Newman certainly didn't have in the opening weeks – and that's luck.
   "You have to have some luck on your side," Stewart says.
    "The rules are so tight that it's the people that make the difference.
    "Everybody has the same cars, everybody has good cars.  You're not going to have bad cars and expect to run well. 
    "What makes the difference with guys running in the top-five every week are the people that are building the cars, the people that are doing that extra little bit, and going that extra mile on attention to detail. 
    "That's the deciding factor. It's not drivers, and it's not fancy racecars. It's the guys that are putting the cars together -- making sure that every time they go to the racetrack, they’re exactly right, 100 percent.  Not 'Well, it's good enough for this weekend.'"

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