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Smoke's people skills match his driving

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

LONG POND, Pa. – From running a race to running his mouth, and everywhere in between, Tony Stewart is remarkable.

We've found out about the in between part this year as Stewart has made fools of all those who doubted him, which pretty much includes everyone, because really, who didn't think he would crawl out of the box as an owner/driver.

But not only is Stewart standing tall, he's looking down at the NASCAR world, red firesuit on, smiling from ear to ear.

It's taken him just four months to do what no one else who's tried has been able to do since 1998 – win a race as an owner. Appropriately, he did that by beating the odds, too.

On a track where a single tank of fuel is supposed to last for around only 30 laps, Stewart squeezed out 40, then had enough left to smoke his tires up and down Pocono Raceway's 3,740-foot frontstretch.

He didn't need to win Sunday's Pocono 500 to validate his decision to leave Joe Gibbs Racing to run his own team; he received that stamp last week (if not earlier than that) when he took the points lead away from Jeff Gordon.

So when asked what the victory means to him, in comparison to all his other wins (34 in the Cup Series) and championships (he's got two of those), Stewart said not that much. Not right now, anyway.

"We don't keep rankings. We keep trophies, they are on a shelf and you scoot one over and slide the next one to it," he said. "It's not about rankings. It's just about enjoying the moment."

Over the last month, as it became more and more clear that this ownership experiment of Stewart's was going to have a happy ending sooner than later, he's grown tired of the questions about how he's making it work. Having good people around him has been his standard response, invariably given with more than a twinge of intolerance.

That's the edge Stewart has always lugged around with him. Right or wrong, he calls it as he sees it, be it a dumb rule by NASCAR, a crappy tire by Goodyear, a stupid question from a reporter or an ill-timed autograph request from a doting fan.

But it's this edge that creates a shield around his troops.

When Ryan Newman had a tire blow in a practice prior to the Daytona 500, which wound up taking out both Newman and Stewart in a two-car collision, Stewart took the heat off Newman by immediately unloading on Goodyear.

Was Stewart right? Probably not, but he sent a message to Newman and everyone else in the organization that the boss was in their corner.

When Stewart crashed in practice on Saturday, partly because of what crew chief Darian Grubb labeled as his fault for not setting the car up correctly, Stewart publicly took the blame.

On Sunday, as Stewart crossed the finish line a few seconds ahead of Carl Edwards, who had run out of gas, he screamed over his radio, "You guys are making me look like a genius."

Stewart may have been the one pedaling his foot on the gas, saving as much as he could, but it was his pit crew, many of whom were holdovers from the old Haas-CNC Racing team, that put Stewart ahead of Edwards on the final pit stop.

"There's something to be said when Tony walks into the shop and he has that confidence. He pats everybody on the back," Grubb said. "They know they are part of this team and they are in it for the long haul; that makes everybody want to work that much harder to go out there and give them what they need to win."

This is the in between part that was the great unknown when Stewart announced his intention to run his own team. Would he, with his hot temper and his biting tongue, be a good manager of people?

Fourteen races in, we're finding out that Tony Stewart is good at that, too.

"I personally didn't believe he could get it done," Edwards said after finishing second, his best result of the season. "I did not think he would succeed the way he has so far."

No one did.

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