Tony Stewart could show up at Pocono Raceway this morning with "I Told You So" painted on the hood of his No. 14 Chevrolet.
And who could blame him?
When Stewart announced 11 months ago that he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to start his own team, the overriding sentiment throughout the garage was that the often brusk two-time Cup champion had finally bitten off more than he could chew.
But instead of committing career suicide, Stewart's first-year program - Stewart-Haas Racing - has excelled on and off the track. His third runner-up finish of the season Sunday in Dover, Del., enabled Stewart to become the first driver/owner to lead NASCAR's top circuit since the late Alan Kulwicki captured the season championship in 1992.
Not one known to lack self-confidence, Stewart nonetheless sounded as surprised as anyone that he will roll into Sunday's Pocono 500 sitting atop the Sprint Cup Series standings, with teammate Ryan Newman an equally shocking fifth in points.
"It's been a dream season for us up to this point, and you hope that you don't wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden realize that we're just getting ready to go to Daytona , and it's all been a dream," Stewart said.
One of the building blocks for success that Stewart learned in 10 years at Joe Gibbs Racing was to surround himself with good people. That's why he's quick to credit the work of Bobby Hutchens, SHR's director of competition, crew chiefs Darian Grubb (No. 14 Chevy) and Tony Gibson (No. 39 Chevy), and fellow driver Newman.
"It's been a total team effort from the word go," offered Newman, who has rallied from a 36th-place debut in February by finishing no worse than eighth over the last five races.
To understand how far and how fast the program has advanced, consider that in its former incarnation - Haas CNC Racing, which was established in 2002 - the two-car outfit went winless in all 284 starts, posted one top-five and 15 top-10 finishes, and never ended a season among NASCAR's top 20 teams. The news away from the track had been equally dismal, with co-owner Gene Haas having recently completed 16 months in prison for tax fraud.
"I'm proud of our entire organization," said Stewart, who has a series-best nine top-10 finishes. "To get caught up like we had to do through the winter with the personnel changes and updating equipment, it took a lot to get everything ready for Daytona, let alone to keep us going each week."
"I always felt that we could come out of the gate strong," said Newman, who has already doubled his 2008 top-five total with four in 13 races. "It's been a lot of fun and I just want to keep the ball rolling."
This weekend at Pocono, where Stewart and Newman have each won, could serve as another indicator of Stewart-Haas Racing's overall strength. Still, never having led the series this early in the season before is keeping Stewart grounded.
"I'm not sure that I thought we could win a championship the first year," he said. "You look at everything on paper, you look at the resources and equipment we have, it makes sense that, yes, you have a shot like everybody else does. But you get to the track and see the competition that we're up against, and there are no slouches. We have a long way to go."
Beginning this weekend at Pocono, NASCAR will utilize double-file restarts as the first- and second-place drivers will line up side-by-side for each restart.
If You Go
The Track: Pocono Raceway is on Route 115 in Long Pond, Pa. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-476) to Exit 95. Take I-80 east toward Hazleton/Mount Pocono to Exit 284, head south on Route 115 for 3 miles.
Today's on-track events: ARCA RE/MAX Series practice, 10:15 a.m.; Sprint Cup Series practice, noon; Sprint Cup Series qualifying, 3:40 p.m.
Television: Sprint Cup Series practice (SPEED, noon); Sprint Cup Series qualifying (SPEED, 3:30 p.m.); Trackside at Pocono (SPEED, 7:30 p.m.).
Tickets: Call 1-800-722-3929 or check the track's Web site at www.poconoraceway.com
- Pete Schnatz