Race Weekend Central

2009 NASCAR Driver Review: Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart

2009 Ride: No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
2009 Primary Sponsors: Office Depot, Old Spice, Burger King
2009 Owner: Tony Stewart
2009 Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
2009 Stats: 36 starts, 4 wins, 15 top fives, 23 top 10s, 1 DNF, sixth in points

High Point: For an organization that had never experienced life at the top of the Sprint Cup heap, the entire regular season must have felt like a 26-week party in Panama City with James Finch for the No. 14 team. After all, this outfit had recorded but one top-five finish in nearly 300 races together over the previous six years of its existence.

Of course, that all changed when Chevrolet tabbed the ever-believing but never-succeeding group of Hendrick welfare children formerly known as Haas CNC Racing as the unlikely winner of the Tony Stewart Lotto. And after adding an increase of Hendrick support to go along with the raw talent of one of this generation’s best wheelmen, the newly-dubbed Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 crew finally stood tall in victory lane – and found themselves $1 million richer – at the All-Star Race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May.

“To get these guys on the team that haven’t been to victory lane there for the first time, that means more than the million dollars does to me,” Stewart said. “It’s that gratifying.”

To hear Stewart tell it, that qualifies as the high point. After all, the first time is always the most memorable, right?

Low Point: For a team riding a wave of 18 top 10s in the season’s first 22 events, the bottom fell out unexpectedly. Following their third points-paying win, which came at Watkins Glen in August, the team stumbled through the rest of the summer. An average finish of 18.2 from Michigan through New Hampshire’s first Chase event in mid-September was a far cry from the seventh-place average showing they’d put up previously.

Summary: All eyes were on Stewart as he parlayed into an owner/driver role in 2009. Most expected a reasonable amount of success; but what Smoke delivered was a legitimate title run, leading the standings from late May until the start of the Chase in September.

An all-star cast of team principles, including Bobby Hutchens, Darian Grubb, Jeff Meendering and Tony Gibson certainly helped take much of the pressure off the two-time Cup champ’s administrative worries. They came together to lay the foundation for a solid infrastructure, capable of utilizing the amped up Hendrick support to elevate the SHR organization to its highest level.

However, the team ran out of steam in the Chase, failing to find the extra gear needed to match the three cars owned by Hendrick himself. While Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon got better as the year drew on, the No. 14 seemed to expend all its energy just getting to the playoffs. A sixth-place points finish in the Chase proved the end result, but even that felt deceiving considering their late-season swoon. No month was worse for the No. 14 team than November, placing 22nd or worse in three of the last four events once the title was well out of their grasp.

Team Ranking: First. Any team that can throw four wins and an All-Star triumph on the season’s resume is worthy of the No. 1 spot within their own organization (except, of course, if you’re Martin and the No. 5 bunch). Which brings us to an interesting point: Stewart most likely would register a tie with Gordon for third on Hendrick Motorsports’ depth chart. Johnson’s team is the undisputed flagbearer there, with Martin’s No. 5 a clear second. Gordon beat Stewart in the points, but Tony’s raw stats trump the No. 24, so we’ll call it a draw and move on.

Off-Track News: Stewart has always been one of the busiest men in motorsports off the track. Whether at his beloved Eldora Speedway or in the shop of one of his USAC teams, he’s thinking racing even when not behind the wheel. However, 2010 will see a reduction of Tony Stewart Racing’s sprint car endeavors as he focuses more on the NASCAR side of the fence.

“We’re going to scale our USAC program back to two Silver Crown cars and one dirt sprint car,” Stewart stated at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “We’re not going to compete in the pavement sprint car races, but we’ll only have one team there and we won’t have any midget teams next year.”

In lighter news, Stewart and Matt Yocum will broadcast “The Stewies,” Smoke’s annual irreverent take on the most memorable moments of the previous Cup season, on Dec. 3. “The Stewies” will air on Sirius XM Radio, live from The Rio in Las Vegas, during Championship Week.

2010 Outlook: Stewart’s talent coupled with Rick Hendrick’s resources make for a dangerous combination, one that will net another three or four wins and a Chase berth. The harsh reality, though, is that no satellite operation has beaten the mothership for a title when the chips were down. Yes, we’ve heard Stewart’s claims that he and his teams are privy to the same engines, chassis, and info as Uncle Rick’s four sons – but until we see Smoke beat Johnson, Martin, et al, with their own toys, that’s hard to believe in full.

Also worth watching is Stewart’s dedication, day-in and day-out, to keeping this program at a title-contending level. It’s easy to devote your whole self in year one when all is new, fresh and exciting, but can Stewart pour his heart and soul in religiously like Hendrick, Jack Roush and the Gibbs camp each and every year from here on out? That part remains to be seen; but if the answer truly is “yes,” Smoke may have as successful a career as an owner as he’s ever had as a driver.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B
2007 Grade: B
2008 Grade: B
2009 Grade: A

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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