CONCORD, N.C. -- He has to hire a crew chief and build a race program in support of Danica Patrick, who will compete full-time at the Sprint Cup level next season for the team he co-owns. He has to fill substantial gaps in sponsorship on his car as well as the vehicle of teammate Ryan Newman, both of which are losing primary backers after the conclusion of the current campaign. And through it all there's the not-so-small matter of trying to win another championship, a quest that began with a sixth-place finish in the Chase opener last week.
These days, Tony Stewart has more balls in the air than a professional juggler -- and the goal is keeping any of them from hitting the ground. Stewart-Haas Racing, the organization Stewart has owned half of since 2009, is expanding to a third full-time Cup entry next season to accommodate Patrick. The impending departures of the U.S. Army and Office Depot will leave sizeable holes in the sponsorship lineups of the team's two incumbent drivers. And looming above it all is another championship run, this one for a fourth title that would further cement Stewart's standing among the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time.
If he can add another crown this year, amid all the changes that have surrounded his organization since the late stages of last season's successful championship pursuit, it might be a feat every bit as impressive as the title he claimed in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards by winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway on the final night of the 2011 campaign. The evolution of SHR has been non-stop -- hiring a new crew chief and competition director, and setting up a part-time Cup program for Patrick, has bled right into the challenges of this year. Success helps, surely, but it doesn't guarantee anything beyond raising the level of expectation straight to the roof.
The figure at the center of all this, of course, is Stewart, who left a comfortable ride at Joe Gibbs Racing when he was offered half of a former Haas-CNC organization that was struggling just to keep cars inside the top 35. The hope was that by adding Stewart as co-owner and de facto head of state, the team could attract better sponsorship that would in turn increase the level of performance. It's unfolded just as planned, as last year's championship would attest. The sponsors came, the quality of personnel increased, the results improved and in just three short years they were hoisting the Sprint Cup. Now Stewart's back again, fresh off a good start to the Chase at Chicagoland, this week eyeing a New Hampshire Motor Speedway where he's sometime hard to beat.
All this while his team is in a state of flux, with sponsor questions lingering and plenty of off-track work to be done. And yet, after an inconsistent midseason, Stewart seems to have flipped a switch with consecutive top-six finishes. Despite the uncertainties at SHR, performance has picked up. There's a reason for that -- Stewart may be a great driver, but he's a master delegator, showing complete trust in his employees. Last year he became the first driver/owner to win the title in 19 years, partly because he doesn't let those larger issues follow him onto the track.
"There's no way you can drive and do all that," Stewart said Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "There's not an organization that does it anyway. You take an organization like Joe Gibbs: Joe doesn't go out and hunt those sponsors down. Joe has a marketing staff in place that goes, and then Joe gets involved later in the equation just like I do. Joe doesn't go down and build the race cars, Joe organizes people, and that's his strong suit as a car owner. Every car owner has their strengths and weaknesses, but I'm promising you, Jack Roush doesn't go cold-calling people to try to get sponsors. He's got a group that does that. ... Every team has their staff that does that, so by the time I get involved, it's pretty far down the path."
Given that his name is on the sign outside, though, he does much more than drive. Last year, when he hired a new crew chief in Steve Addington and a new competition director in Greg Zipadelli shortly after his third title run was complete, Stewart estimates that his offseason consisted of all of 14 days.
"We were pretty busy. But it's not always that way," he said. SHR has a three-tiered marketing department that handles sponsorship procurement and retention, and Stewart himself typically doesn't sit down with potential new partners until late in the process, allowing him to devote more focus to the race car.
"When I get involved, it's more just meeting everybody, making sure they're comfortable with me and we're comfortable with them," said Stewart, at Charlotte to announce a Wounded Warrior Project initiative that will take place during the track's race weekend next month. "And we all sit down and make sure we're accomplishing what their goals are. It's not just them writing us a check to fund the race team, it's a goal that they have in being part of the project, too. It's sitting down with them and making sure we can fulfill what their goals and objectives are. It's not necessarily that I'm even in a closer role. It's that at some point, I'm going to meet these people, and they've got to get a feel for whether it feels good to them or not."
He certainly appeared to flourish in that role in late 2008 when, just weeks after announcing his partnership with Gene Haas for the following season, he was rolling out a pair of new sponsors during a press event at Indianapolis. At a time when some teams were reeling, Stewart made it look easy.
"Looks can be deceiving," he said Tuesday, adding that sponsor procurement has always been tough. "It was hard then. And when we started the team, it probably wasn't the best time to start an organization. We look at it as, if we can get through this low part, the rest of it will get better. I think we've been able to do a good job in a hard economic time and still be able to perform well."
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A large part of that is clearly due to Stewart, whose talent behind the wheel speaks for itself, and whose lively personality is a hit with many fans. He has that rare combination of being able to charm in the boardroom and deliver on the race track, the very reason Haas offered him half the organization to begin with.
"That's the whole part of having us a part of the team ownership -- there's nobody going to give half their team away just for the heck of it," Stewart said. "That's part of the draw of us being a car owner, is helping hopefully to draw the sponsorship."
So, where does the search stand for next season? "That's the news I'd really like to have for everybody right now," he said. Given his track record in more difficult economic climates, it's tough to believe Stewart won't pull something together. Surely, his marketing team at SHR is working the phones. That leaves Stewart to attract potential new sponsors in the way he does best -- by contending for race wins and championships, and capturing the public eye. A few weeks ago, it was throwing a helmet at Matt Kenseth. Sunday it was goosing DeLana Harvick, the wife of driver Kevin, on pit road prior to the Chicagoland race in a prank that was caught on television.
Stewart, who once drove a Nationwide car for the Harvicks, said he has a great relationship with the couple, and such hijinks are common among the three of them. From her Twitter account, DeLana posted a video of Stewart doing the same thing to Kevin prior to a Nationwide race at Darlington in 2006. Sunday's clip quickly went viral, even appearing on CNN Headline News. To Stewart, it was no big deal. "It's normally good luck for us," he said. "Whatever works."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Tony Stewart