With New Sponsor And Increased Confidence, Things Are Good For Stewart

 

Stewart

Tony Stewart announced that his Stewart-Haas Racing team has received new sponsorship for this year and next from Quicken Loans, which will serve as a primary backer for Ryan Newman in 2012. It's all going well for Stewart, whose win at Martinsville put him just eight points behind Carl Edwards with three races remaining.

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Right now things are going along swimmingly well for Tony Stewart.

Four days ago he won the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The victory propelled him into second place in the point standings, just eight points behind leader Carl Edwards.

There are just three races left in the Chase for the 2011 title and more than a few predict that it all could be settled between Edwards and Stewart at the last event of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As pleasing as all that might be for Stewart the driver, perhaps now he is as equally satisfied as Stewart the team owner.

On Tuesday, Stewart announced that Quicken Loans would join Stewart-Haas Racing as a primary sponsor for the No. 39 Chevrolets driven by Ryan Newman and an associate on the No. 14 Chevys raced by Stewart.

Quicken will be Newman’s primary sponsor for nine races in 2012, coming on board with the U.S. Army, slated for 21 events and Tornados, which could be the principal backer for as many as five more.

It’s anticipated that Stewart Haas will make at least two more sponsor announcements in the future.

For any NASCAR team to acquire new financial support is a significant achievement. Sponsorship is the lifeblood of every organization and it has not been easy to gain in the last few years, largely because of the sagging economy.

As a result some organizations have gone out of business while others – make that several others – have had to enact massive layoffs.

It’s a situation that continues today and has already affected the NASCAR landscape. Two of Sprint Cup’s most powerful teams – Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing – will likely be reduced from four teams to three because of a lack of sponsorship.

Nearly all organizations now have multiple sponsorships for their teams. This allows them to implement the competitive budgets they need without having to pitch one company for full-season financial support.

Where single sponsorships were once common, they are now prohibitively expensive and a very hard sell.

“There is still a loot of value in NASCAR and announcements like we made today prove that,” Stewart said. “But the economy is tough. I always talk to sponsors about how aggressive our team is. We are young and we’re able to step outside the box. Some of the organizations which have been around a long time kinda get in the mode of, ‘This is who were are and this is how we do it.’

“I don’t think we are stuck in that rut. We find creative ways to take what potential sponsors’ goals and objectives are and make it work for them.

“It’s nice to have multiple cars to work with. Ryan’s car has not had a single season-long sponsor and that makes it very appealing to that partner that doesn’t necessarily want spend all the money it takes to sponsor one car for one year. They can share.

“We saw that a couple of years ago with the No. 88 team (Hendrick Motorsports with partner sponsors Amp Energy Drink and the National Guard). That arrangement made things very attractive for other sponsors.”

There’s no doubt that Stewart’s victory at Martinsville enhanced his team’s value and made it more rewarding for its present sponsors with increased appeal to potential new ones.

“NASCAR racing is a performance-based industry all the way around,” Stewart said. “Whether you are on the competition side or the business side, it’s very important to win races.

“But it’s also important to be able to figure out things outside the box and not just about asking partners to write checks. It’s about how they can use the sport to grow their business.

“It is still every bit as difficult as it was two years ago when the economy fell off. We talk about the competition on the track but it’s just as tough off the track. It’s very competitive today and that is what makes having an announcement like this one very special.”

While Stewart the businessman has already achieved a measure of success, he will play a different role in the championship hunt.

It will be Stewart the competitor that gets the job done on the track. The native of Columbus, Ind., knows exactly when to make the identity change; when to put on the game face.

“I’ll put it on Thursday like I always do,” Stewart said. “I’ve been in this sport long enough to know where and when to put the right focus.”

Stewart’s win at Martinsville bolstered his, and his team’s, confidence largely because they were successful at a track on which routinely they haven’t performed well.

Stewart was so elated with the victory, and how he stood in the Chase, he suggested Edwards would be so worried he would suffer a lack of sleep.

Stewart maintains those sentiments and admits increased confidence has a lot to do with that.

“At Martinsville we had a car that, after 200 laps, looked like it was going to be one or two laps down at the end of the day,” he said. “It didn’t and that’s what gives us the sense of confidence.

“We are through the Talladegas and the Martinsvilles and now we are going places where I feel like we can control our own destiny.

“It’s nice to know that you don’t have to rely on anyone else having problems. It’s nice to know we can control our own destiny.

“It’s an awesome position to be in right now.”

Stewart feels his team can do very well at the three upcoming tracks – Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

“Everybody in the organization has worked hard. It’s not like we’ve done something different,” said Stewart, whose three victories this year have all come in the Chase. “We are coming around to the tracks where we run well. At Martinsville, we were at a track where we don’t run well, and we got it turned around.
“But I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again over the next three weeks. You take it one day at a time. I said before the Chase started I didn’t think we were one of the teams that deserved to make it. I wasn’t on my list of guys I thought could win this thing.

“Now, we can win it. But we still have to go out and do our job. We have three tracks ahead that are really good for us and we look forward to running them.

“And that’s a perfect position to be in right now.”

 

It Looked Easy As Gordon Firms Up Contender Role

A few observations about the 5-Hour Energy 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway:

 

** It certainly appeared that Jeff Gordon had a relatively easy day of it. He maintained his race lead after the final series of pit stops, which began on lap 174 of 200, and then pulled away to win by a comfortable margin (2.965 seconds) over Kurt and Kyle Busch.

The victory was Gordon’s fifth at Pocono and the 84th of his career, which ties him for third place with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on NASCAR’s all-time list.

You’ll get an argument about that from Allison, who has often declared that he has 85 wins. One was taken away from him, suspiciously, when he won what was then known as a Grand National race in a “non-Grand National” car. According to Allison, his vehicle was competition-approved by NASCAR – and thus the victory should stand.

However, the record book indicates otherwise.

Anyway, Gordon earned his second win of the season, which solidified his position as a championship contender. The Hendrick Motorsports driver stands 11th in points but has a firm grip on an insurance policy.

Under the new system two “wildcard” drivers will be selected for the Chase based upon their number of victories and provided they rank among the top 20 in points.

Gordon is the only driver among positions 11-20 with any victories, thus he’s in an excellent position to claim at least a “wildcard” slot in the Chase.

Juan Pablo Montoya, still looking for his first NASCAR win on an oval track, led after the race restarted on lap 160 from a caution period. Shortly thereafter, Gordon slipped past Montoya to take the lead, which he held after the final restart on lap 182.

Gordon’s victory was accomplished through a seamless performance that saw him easily lead the final 19 laps. It appeared to be as routine as his first victory at Pocono, achieved on June 16, 1996 in the UAW-GM Teamwork 500.

The big difference, however, as that Gordon didn’t overwhelm the field to win 15 years ago. He was virtually handed the victory.

Back then Pocono Raceway had been repaved and speeds were expected to be very high due to the increased grip provided by the new asphalt.

Sure enough, 37 drivers broke Rusty Wallace’s two-year-old track qualifying record. Gordon won the pole with a speed nearly five miles per hour faster than the record.

The race evolved into a tussle among a handful of drivers, among them Gordon, Derrike Cope, Hut Stricklin, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine and Wallace.

One by one, Gordon’s challengers began to fall by the wayside. The gearshift knob in Stricklin’s Ford came off in his hand while he was shifting from third to fourth gear and the transmission failed.

Cope ran into the rear of Robert Pressley’s Chevrolet, which knocked the aerodynamics of Cope’s Ford haywire.

Wallace burned out the clutch on his Ford while leaving the pits after a green-flag stop. Bodine suffered from a lug-nut problem during his final pit stop.

By that time only Rudd remained as a Gordon challenger. But he was no match. Gordon came home a very comfortable three seconds ahead to earn his second straight victory of 1996.

As it was then, it wasn’t too difficult for Gordon this time out at Pocono. And, for him, the best result is that, barring a complete breakdown, he’s assured of an opportunity to earn his fifth career championship.

 

** It might have been clear sailing over smooth waters for Gordon, but that can’t be said for a couple of other championship-caliber competitors.

Points leader Carl Edwards came down pit road on lap 58 and then went behind the wall with engine problems two laps later.

“There was no warning at all, it just went,” Edwards said. “Before the race we talked so much about not over revving the engine and not breaking the transmission and all these things. It is just a coincidence, I believe, that we broke something.”

Edwards was relegated to 37th place, which means his points lead has dwindled from 40 points to six over second-place Jimmie Johnson, who is bidding to win his sixth consecutive championship.

Edwards is only 10 points in front of third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who scored yet another top-10 finish at Pocono (sixth) and 11 points in front of Kevin Harvick, who is fourth in points. Kyle Busch rounds out the top five.

 

** Certainly one of the pre-race favorites at Pocono was Denny Hamlin. Although he came into the race without a win in 2001, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a sterling record at the 2.5-mile, triangular track.

Hamlin had four wins in 10 starts at Pocono, including two of the past three races.

Sure enough, he seemed to have the field covered, dominating the early stages of the race, leading 72 of the first 76 laps and thus establishing himself as the man to beat.

But he took a hit on a green-flag stop on lap 76 when he spent 18.9 seconds on pit road and was relegated to second place behind Montoya.

Then he suffered a flat left-rear tire, was forced back down pit road before the lap 160 restart and was caught back in 21st place before he finished a disappointing 19th.

“When we left pit road and had a flat tire – that is just not your day.” Hamlin said. “When it did that, it sheared the tire and wrapped it around the housing and broke the brake lines so I had no brakes – it was just a slew of problems there at the end.”

 

The All-Star Race: Hype Wasn’t Reality, But That’s Not New

A few notes about the NASCAR Sprint Cup All Star Race:

 

** As usual, the race was hyped as a “dash for cash,” “checkers or wreckers,” and even “payback time,” because of its format.

As you know, the race is not about points. It’s all about money – at least $1 million to the winner – and is tailored to end with a 10-lap “shootout” finish, one in which drivers, supposedly, will take all manner of chances to win.

On paper it sounds good. And, admittedly, there have been some all-star races in the past in which a driver surprised everyone over the final 10 laps and pulled off an upset victory.

There has also been some closing-lap mayhem – plenty of it, in fact.

Not this year, however. It a race decidedly devoid of virtually everything for which it’s hyped, Carl Edwards pulled away over the final 10 laps to win easily and earn $1.2 million.

“Checkers or wreckers?” No one got close enough to Edwards to crash him. Hey, the Roush Fenway driver did it to himself.

After his victory, as he plowed through the frontstretch grass, the front end of his Ford dug into the sod, hit a drainage port and nearly turned over.

The car was severely damaged. Edwards was embarrassed but still entertained the crowd – a very large one, by the way – with his victory backflip and a dash into the grandstands with the checkered flag. He posed for photos with fans as the theme from “Flipper” (you read that right) played over the public address system.

For Edwards, the all-star race was “checkers AND wreckers,” but as far as many others were concerned, it was “boring and snoring.”

Normally, drivers do go somewhat bonkers in the special event and there’s usually plenty of crumpled metal to go around.

This time, there were just two unscheduled caution periods caused by two minor, one-car wrecks.

There were no frayed tempers, such as displayed last year when Denny Hamlin crowded teammate Kyle Busch into the wall during a fight for the lead, which prompted Busch to question the value of his teammate’s life.

There was, however, some good, hard racing among NASCAR’s top stars, such as Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and David Reutimann.

But when it comes to the all-star race, many folks think that’s just not enough. It’s not what the race is all about. They expect to see a free-for-all, a heavyweight slugfest with knockdowns aplenty.

And let’s be honest. That is exactly how the all-star race is hyped.

Hype did not become reality this year. But, in all honesty, that’s nothing new. We don’t always get what’s advertised.

 

** That said, there have been ongoing suggestions as to how the format of the all-star race might be changed so that it more often lives up to its billing.

These suggestions, offered by media and fans, started well before the race was over. That clearly indicated many observers weren’t pleased with what they saw.

The most prominent suggestions referred to shortening the race and eliminating episodes of what were called “momentum killers.”

The race was formatted thusly: It had a 50-lap opening during which there was a mandatory four-tire pit stop. There followed two 20-lap sessions. After the second, teams took a 10-minute intermission (with on-track running positions frozen) to make permissible changes to their cars.

Then followed another mandatory pit stop for four tires. This, ostensibly, would allow pit crews to play a role in the outcome. With fast, mistake-free work, they could advance their drivers’ starting position on the restart.

There followed the 10-lap “shootout.” In all, the race consisted of 100 laps.

The most prominent suggestions were to reduce the 50-lap opening segment; make it shorter so that drivers feel more urgency to get to the front rather than nurse their cars.

It was also mentioned that there is no need for the 10-minute intermission. It brings racing to a stop. Why not, some said, reduce the inactivity time? Simply throw a caution, require another pit stop and then restart the race – with cars aligned in the order they left pit road.

In a published report, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that the 50-lap opening segment was too long and that the race would be better served if, overall, it was shorter.

“From a fans’ standpoint I think the first segment is too long,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Make the event a little shorter and make it a little more about the fireworks that the drivers provide in the event.”

Jeff Gordon, who has competed in the all-star race throughout all its mutations over the years, maintained that fewer cars and shorter segments are the answer.

“Let’s face it, it’s a 10-lap shootout,” Gordon said. “So it’s whatever process gets you to that 10 laps. The four different segments, to me, seem to be pulling and stretching things a bit.”

Gordon also favors the revitalization of the now-defunct inverted field created by a fan vote. It was put in place at least one segment before the final 10 laps.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” he said.

Other drivers, I’m sure, have their own opinions about the all-star race’s format.

Frankly, I can see where trimming some fat would help. An opening segment of 50 laps is too long – drivers have said they feel no sense of urgency and prefer to race calmly as they sort out their cars.

I also agree that the 10-minute intermission kills all racing momentum. Is it really needed?

But, to be honest, as far as NASCAR is concerned what I think doesn’t matter.

However, fan opinions do. I daresay the format of the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star race is reviewed every year. And we can assume the sanctioning body isn’t foolish enough to completely ignore its supporters’ views.

So if you feel the need, speak up. Change never comes for those who remain quiet.

 

Mr. Smith’s Improbable Journey At Darlington Raceway

A couple of points to consider after the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway:

** Sometimes racing rewards us with the unexpected, the unanticipated.

Something happens that is so far beyond the limits of our belief that we really can’t fathom it. We can only can only stand there in amazement, somewhat slack-jawed as we say to ourselves and anyone else who cares to listen, “I don’t believe what I just saw.”

We had such a moment in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. For years it has been one of NASCAR’s most prominent and venerated races. It’s the oldest held on an asphalt track. It’s conducted on a 1.366-mile layout that is considered the toughest in all of stock car racing.

It is a race that has been won by the likes of David Pearson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and other giants of the sport. Journeymen and, essentially, nobodies do not win it.

Now, however, it has been done. The Southern 500 will go into lore as one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history and one of the most feel-good finishes of all time.

That’s because it was won by Regan Smith – yes, the same Regan Smith who is part of an underfunded, one-car team, which has 64 employees, uses a pit crew from Stewart-Haas Racing, engines from Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and chassis from Richard Childress Racing.

It’s the same Regan Smith who has routinely began regarded as, at best, an also-ran in any race he’s entered.

And, perhaps, the same Regan Smith many of us regarded as a nobody. Trust me, after Darlington he is somebody special, indeed.

“I’m not supposed to do this,” said the 27-year-old Smith as he choked up with tears in victory lane. “I’ve never even had a top five.”

At Darlington, Smith wasn’t handed anything. He earned it.

He gambled and stayed on track when most of the leaders pitted for tires with 10 laps remaining. He told us later that the strategy was one he hoped crew chief Pete Rondeau would adopt.

Smith appeared to be a sitting duck. Behind him on the restart was Carl Edwards, who had been a strong as nine rows of garlic throughout the trace and, unlike Smith, was on fresh tires.

Smith spun his tires on the restart but held the lead. He caught a bit of a break when Brad Keselowski wedged himself between Smith and Edwards.

He caught another when he bobbled – only to have Edwards do the same thing.

Despite his newer tires, Edwards could never reach Smith, who managed to keep his Chevrolet in the fresh air.

Smith led Edwards, the points leader, over the green-white-checkered finish and in so doing, put his name alongside those of the sport’s greats.

Smith’s accomplishment was not lost on others. Among those who congratulated him afterward were Kurt Busch, Greg Biffile and Edwards, who said that if he couldn’t win it was good that Smith did.

Smith is the 2008 Sprint Cup rookie of the year who has gained some notoriety of late because of excellent qualifying efforts.

But he’s seldom, if ever, been considered a victory contender. Everything seems to have worked against him – a small team based in Denver, Colo., of all places, and one that has never been given any chance against the sport’s powerhouses, like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and the like.

Smith, however, came close to victory prior to Darlington. In 2008, he passed Tony Stewart for what appeared to be a win at Talladega until NASCAR took it away because Smith went below the yellow, out-of-bounds, line.

This victory will not be taken away from Smith.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Smith, who earned his first NASCAR victory and admittedly, first of any kind that he can remember. “When I walked to the car today, I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when we walk to the car. The difference was this week, we did.

“I can’t believe his. It’s too cool.”

What Smith has given us, and NASCAR, is yet another unanticipated moment when an underdog proves his mettle.

We saw it in Daytona this year when young Trevor Bayne shocked, and pleased, everyone with his victory in the 500 – which restored immeasurable luster to the tarnished, yet venerated, team known as Wood Brothers Racing.

When you think about it, isn’t to have someone succeed despite odds and adversity a true essence and beauty of sports?

Of course it is.

 

 

** Now we move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It’s too bad that with his victory, Smith had to share the limelight, even in the slightest, with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Truth is that after the Southern 500, most of the talk and TV highlights will be about these two.

They engaged in some bumping and grinding on the track and that carried over a postrace confrontation in which Harvick took a couple of swings at Busch as the two stopped post-race on the track, just above pit road.

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you fans and media alike enjoy driver dust-ups. If nothing else, they smack of the good ol’ days of NASCAR, when competitors settled issues among themselves with fists, tire irons or maybe even a .38.

And there’s nothing wrong with venting, if for no other reason than that given by Tony Stewart, who said that blowing off steam never fixed a car, but it often made a driver feel better.

Hope Busch and Harvick feel better because they certainly did themselves no service.

When it comes to incidents between drivers, NASCAR has tried extremely hard to let the issues be settled among themselves.

Doesn’t always work, as was made clear in the latest episode of Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman.

However, when NASCAR does decide to act that’s when a team can potentially suffer, especially if the sanctioning body responds with loss of points, probation, etc.

When Montoya seemed to show no signs of perceived over aggressiveness in the Southern 500, reportedly NASCAR conveyed its dislike.

Montoya retreated into a shell and was a non-entity for the remainder of the race. Didn’t serve him well in points.

As for Busch-Harvick, we don’t yet know if NASCAR is going to take the matter into its own hands. But you can bet the farm it will.

That’s because when Harvick decided to take a poke at Busch, Harvick’s unattended car rushed across pit road and slammed into the inside pit wall.

That car could have hit any number of people or, worse, pinned someone against the wall.

NASCAR may be relenting when it comes to driver vs. driver, but anytime their actions threaten the well being of others, the sanctioning body wastes no time in judgment.

They may not have been intentional, but Harvick’s actions posed a serious danger on pit road. This is something NASCAR will not tolerate.

I would be stunned if Harvick does not receive a rather stiff punishment sometime this week – maybe Busch, too, but certainly Harvick.

It’s just one example of how a confrontation can get out of hand and become, in the end, much more than for what a driver bargained.

 

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