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Tony Stewart's new operation is running so smoothly it's eerie


Tony Stewart is on top of his world. Hey, maybe this owner-driver thing isn't so tough after all (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Well, maybe this Tony Stewart thing is for real.
   He certainly is making his new team look like a veteran operation – and Daytona 500 contender.
   Very impressive, very impressive.
   And maybe Stewart himself is impressed.
   He says Rick Hendrick, the man mentoring him in this two-car effort, has been a key: "Mr. Hendrick is such a great guy.  He's been the biggest supporter of us doing this, making this change. 
   "There's times he's called me at 11:30 at night saying 'Hey, is there anything I can do?  How is it going?  How are you doing?'
   "He knows it's been a stressful off-season.  He's been the calming hand on my shoulder saying 'Hey, it's going to be all right. You're doing a good job.'"
   So what, really, did Stewart expect? I mean, a new team, new crew, new deal?
   "I came into it with an open mind -- not knowing what it was going to be," Stewart was saying after running second to 'teammate' Jeff Gordon in Thursday's 150. "I didn't come here saying 'We're going to struggle,' or 'We've got a shot to win every race.'
    "It was more taking a step back and saying 'Let's just see what happens.'
    "But I have been pleasantly surprised. 
    'I've been obviously ecstatic we've run the way we have.  Ryan's car obviously was good in qualifying.  We qualified well.  We've had two good races now.
   "It's been an awesome, awesome week for the organization.
    "I know I sound like a broken record, and you are probably sick of it, but I'm just so happy. 
    "When you're at the shop every day, and you see the progress being made….normally I'm in Indiana for a whole month and forget about it. 
    "It makes me think back to Christmas Eve, when we had to kick guys out of the shop at 1:00 in the afternoon to spend time with their families.  They wanted to stay and work on the cars."
    And new crew chief Darian Grubb has been living up to his credentials. 
     "Working with Darian has been a small adjustment," Stewart concedes. "I told Mr. Hendrick 'It's really amazed me how calm he is.  He's so even keeled.'
     "I almost want to start messing with him, just to see if I can get him off-center a little. 
     "I haven't seen him get mad yet.  You barely can get him to laugh.  He smiles a lot, but he doesn't laugh a lot.
     "He's just very monotone about everything. 
    "But you can hear his confidence on the radio.  From a driver's standpoint, if the guy that is calling the race is confident, it boosts your confidence."
    And this new car-of-tomorrow? Not every driver is enthusiastic about it here.
  But Stewart's take on the new car is positive:
   "Another year with these cars, and everybody is getting more comfortable with them. Everybody is figuring out how to get them driving better. 
    "That gives us more flexibility to move around the track….and helps us put on a better race.
    "At the end of the race nobody knew who was going to end up where, and guys were all over the place, shuffling back and forth.
    "But it's nice to be able to do that…and not be in a big melee. 
     "I thought the races have been good this week.  The Shootout was definitely exciting. It's been exciting to watch the replays….and it was exciting to be in it."
     And Stewart insists it wasn't weird watching somebody else in the car he drove for so many years: "On Sunday after qualifying, I went over and walked up in the 20 trailer (his home for 10 years with Joe Gibbs and Greg Zipadelli), plopped down like I always have, sat there and talked to Zippy for 35 or 40 minutes. 
   "Talked about the same stuff we always talked about. 
    "That side of it I'm really proud of -- that we still are able to do that, that we still have those relationships.
    "And it really wasn't as weird as you would think it would be (watching Joey Logano in his old colors).  It's still another car on the track that you got to race."


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