with RICH FOLEY
Stewart’s latest move not that odd
Many in the NASCAR community expressed the opinion that Tony Stewart had lost his mind when he announced he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of 2008 to became driver and co-owner of the struggling Haas CNC team.
After all, Stewart had won 32 races and two NASCAR Cup championships with the Gibbs team while the Haas CNC outfit had never came close to winning a race, even when having drivers as noted as Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton behind the wheel.
It’s an indication of how desperate team management was that they basically gave Stewart half ownership of the team just for signing on as driver. But was Stewart wise to accept the deal?
The idea of owner-drivers in the NASCAR Cup series has come and went a couple of times in the past. In NASCAR’s early years, many drivers owned their own teams. By the mid-1960s, most top drivers had signed on with factory-backed team owners, leaving only struggling independent drivers to run their own operations.
Bobby Allison won seven races in his own car in the early 1970s, driving it in races his regular team owners chose to skip. After his last owner-driver win in 1974, it was 14 years until the feat was repeated.
Long-time journeyman driver Lake Speed ran the race of his life at Darlington in March 1988, winning for the only time in his career. He gave hope to all of his fellow independent drivers, but Alan Kulwicki was the one who lived the dream to its fullest.
Kulwicki scored his first Cup win in November 1988, but he didn’t stop there. He won again in 1990 and 1991. He also won 24 poles during his career. Even with his success, Kulwicki was never quite able to secure sponsorship on an even dollar level with the sport’s top teams. But it didn’t matter in 1992.
Kulwicki won twice that year and squeaked out a Cup championship in the final race of the season. In the meantime, Darrell Waltrip had started his own team in 1991 and won two races, then added three more in 1992.
When Kulwicki was tragically killed in an airplane crash early in 1993, other drivers jockeyed to buy his team and join the owner-driver craze.
Geoff Bodine eventually bought Alan Kulwicki Racing and won three races in 1994 and another in 1996. Ricky Rudd started his own team from scratch in 1994 and won six times between 1994 and 1998.
Other drivers tried to run their own teams with less success, but even the big names tired of the increasing demands on their time to run a team and court sponsors in addition to their in-car duties. Bodine sold his team and returned to driving only after the 1997 season. Waltrip sold his operation in mid-1998. Rudd made it through the 1999 season before returning to “hired-gun” status.
In recent years, both Michael Waltrip and Robby Gordon have tried the owner-driver combination. Even with major sponsorship, Waltrip’s experiment has been disastrous. Gordon has fared somewhat better, but has been unable to secure sponsorship befitting a major team, hindering his efforts to return to Victory Lane. That’s one problem Tony Stewart appears to have solved.
While long-time backer Home Depot will remain with Gibbs, Old Spice, an associate sponsor of Stewart’s for years, will move to his new team as co-major sponsor. Stewart has added Office Depot, now a sponsor on the car of Carl Edwards, as the other major sponsor. Stewart plans to run a second car, but driver and sponsor have yet to be named.
Stewart seems to be the kind of person that can make this work. Like Kulwicki, he’s a bit of a perfectionist and will probably run through quite a few employees until he finds a group he’s comfortable with. Once that happens, the sky’s the limit.
Stewart is already a successful owner of several open-wheel racing teams and Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, one of the country’s legendary short tracks. After he has total control of his Cup future in his hands and Stewart-Haas Racing is running to his satisfaction, that third Cup championship could be just around the corner.