News & Media

Stewart's race team rises from tatters to title

November 21, 2011, David Caraviello,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- A telephone call from Rick Hendrick made all the difference.

It was Hendrick, whose powerhouse motorsports team supplied engines and equipment to the organization then known as Haas-CNC Racing, who a little more than three years ago helped convince Tony Stewart to make the leap into car ownership. Stewart had a safe, comfortable, successful job driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, where he had won two championships at NASCAR's highest level. But Gene Haas and Joe Custer came calling with an offer of half the team for Stewart's name, talent and star power, and the Indiana-born driver was never one to back away from a challenge.

Winning his way

Tony Stewart's fifth Chase victory made him a three-time Cup Series champ. Smoke needed every one as he and Carl Edwards finished in a dead heat and Stewart won on the tiebreaker.

"I think the variable that was the little bit of the push over the top that I needed, it came from Rick Hendrick. And Rick had had a relationship with Gene and the two teams working together in the past. When Rick called me and said, 'Hey, this may be an opportunity for you,' and where I was at in my life and my career, you know, I guess I've never been scared to step outside my comfort zone with opportunities," Stewart said.

"Rick talked to me on the phone one night and he goes, 'I'm not going to let this fail.' That's words that I have never forgot."

He backed them up. Propelled by Hendrick engines, chassis and technical help, the rechristened Stewart-Haas Racing became an overnight contender on the Sprint Cup tour, winning four times in the first season after Stewart came on board. And Sunday night came the ultimate triumph, when Stewart drove his No. 14 car to a Sprint Cup championship for an organization that just a few years ago struggled to make races, much less win them.

Stewart won the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim a record-setting fifth victory in the Chase, which he used to edge Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker that decided the closest NASCAR points race ever. With two other trophies on his mantel, Stewart is no stranger to this kind of success at the sport's top level. But his team is, especially considering that only four years ago, its cars were struggling to stay inside the top 35 in owners' points.

That was in 2008, when Scott Riggs and Tony Raines were the primary drivers for an operation that had been founded six years earlier and recorded only one top-five finish in its history. Stewart signed on as co-owner the next year, and brought fellow Hoosier Ryan Newman with him, and since then the team has won 13 times -- and now has NASCAR's ultimate championship, thanks to Stewart's phenomenal effort in what amounted to a winner-take-all duel with Edwards on Sunday night.

"Tony Stewart is a superstar. We knew that," said Haas. "And I had, basically ... back at our shop, I had the jack stands and Tony Stewart was the driver of the car, and he could do that. Unfortunately you need a wheel man. You could have the best equipment in the world, but without a good wheel man, you really don't have a whole lot. [It] just seemed like an opportunity. I thought Tony was a little crazy for doing it, but Tony is a little bit smarter than you think sometimes. He obviously saw some potential in what we did."

Before Stewart, though, most every race was a struggle for a team that started out in 2002 with Jack Sprague. Haas charged general manager Custer with finding a way out of the morass, and the result was to go big and offer Stewart a deal he couldn't refuse. Custer said there is a still a core group who has been with the team since Haas-CNC started in a small shop rented from -- who else -- Hendrick Motorsports.

"The reason we did it was because we came here to win races and compete for championships," Custer said. "There was a no question that we felt Tony would be our next step in that progression. But there's no way Tony Stewart comes on board without the infrastructure in place, and we spent eight years producing that. Luckily, Gene has a lot of patience."

"I thought Tony was a little crazy for doing it, but Tony is a little bit smarter than you think sometimes. He obviously saw some potential in what we did."


Those moves began before Stewart arrived, in the form of the relationship with Hendrick, and the hiring of former race-winning crew chief Matt Borland as vice president of competition. Borland, who enjoyed a successful stint with Newman when both were at Penske Racing, serves in a similar role with the team today.

"I think a big trigger was Matt Borland," Custer said. "Inside, you need someone with complete credibility, and Matt Borland to me is that person. The trust level with him was just incredible. ... Him stepping up to vice president of competition made a big difference for us. I felt like hiring Matt was kind of one of those trigger moments, and that was a couple of years before Tony."

Stewart, though was the major step. It was Stewart who brought in Newman, a well-respected competition director in Bobby Hutchens (who has since departed the team) and crew chiefs Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson. It was Stewart whose star power has helped the team attract an array of sponsors. And it was Stewart who brought the organization to the top of NASCAR, far from where it had been before he arrived.

"When we first started out, it wasn't a great time to enter the sport because it was kind of somewhat in the height of its popularity, drivers were at a premium, [and] most people in the garage don't put a lot of faith in a new team, so you have to spend your time just earning their respect," Haas said. "And even that doesn't cut it. So many teams fail. People spend huge amounts of money to try to get to this point. And we just kept plugging away. I think we weren't doing that well .... We had two cars, [and] it's tough when you're in that bottom-35 range. So you just make changes. And you know, thanks to Chevrolet, and Tony was ready to go beyond being a driver, and so that's how it was all born."

Stewart, who became the first driver/owner to win a Cup title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992, turns much of the day-to-day operation of his race team over to others. But it's still his name on the sign out front, which is quite a change from the days when his lone responsibility was driving the race car.

"I would be lying if I said there weren't a lot of nights I laid my head on a pillow and said, 'Have you lost your mind?' It was a lot easier being a driver," Stewart said. "And there was a lot of responsibility that came with being a driver in a big organization, but you know, there's a lot of worries. It's still a business. This is a big industry, and my goal from day one has been to be able to look Gene Haas in the eyes and shake his hand and say, 'Hey, it didn't cost you a dime this year to go race, I want you to just come to the track and have fun and enjoy what you've built.' Our economy has been rough the last three years, and it's been a challenge to do that."

But the challenges Stewart-Haas faces today stand in stark contrast to those once battled by Haas-CNC, an organization that struggled to stay on the fringes of NASCAR relevance. Now, a team that once just wanted to stay in the top 35 has visions on multiple titles.

"It took longer that it should have, in my opinion, but there was never a backwards step. It was always a progression," Custer said. "I think we should have won three [championships] in a row. I do. And I think we could have win three in a row. I'm not saying we deserve it, I'm saying we could have."