Tony Stewart: I Strictly Stay in Driver Mode

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Tony Stewart: I Strictly Stay in Driver Mode
(Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Tony Stewart lept out from under the wings of former team owner Joe Gibbs after 10 successful years of racing, including two Sprint Cup Series championships.

In 2009, Stewart made the move back to the "Bow-Ties" and put on the owner cap in the NASCAR garage.

As the season began, many people thought the team would struggle out of the gates, and have a hard time keeping up with the competition.

Not many would classify a seventh place standing in the points and four top-10 finishes in the first six races as "struggling." Stewart collected his first top-five finish of the season this past weekend at Martinsville, finishing third.

Stewart was part of a conference call on Tuesday, and talked a little bit about this past weekend and his new role as owner.

"I'm really proud. I mean, obviously to get our first top-five was something that we were really proud of," Stewart said.

"But at the same time, you know, we had a pretty uneventful day from our standpoint. But, you know, Ryan, he had a long way to go from starting 27th to get up to sixth. I was really proud of him and his effort and everybody on the U.S. Army team.

"Between the U.S. Army team and the Old Spice Office Depot team, I thought we had a great day as an organization."

Along with Stewart's first top-five of the season, Newman collected his second straight top-10 finish after bad luck plagued the No. 39 team the first four weeks.

Being an owner, and driving a car, is a tough balance that many have struggled with. But Stewart, appears to be settling into both roles and remembers what job comes first on Sunday.

"Even before the race, once Friday starts...I switch that hat over and I strictly stay in driver mode," Stewart said.

"I catch myself worrying sometimes about where Ryan is, you know, with some of the bad luck he had early in the year, a couple of races I would ask where he was at. But, you know, that's probably the only difference between what I normally would do and what we're doing now."

Stewart continued to say that having Newman as a teammate, and being the car owner, he tends to be a little more "curious" about where he is running during the race—more so than he would if he weren't the owner.

"But, you know, there's other times that I've had teammates and have asked where they were at too," he said. "But I think a little bit more of it on the cautions now because I am a car owner."

Stewart was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take over a team that was already "established."

Michael Waltrip, on the other hand, started a team completely from scratch.

When asked about the differences in the two, Stewart said, "We got an opportunity to come into an organization that already had pieces in place. It was just a matter of, you know, getting the right people in the right places.

"And I think that made it to where it was, you know, a realistic option for us."

But to start from scratch?

Stewart said, "I don' think I would have tried to take that on."

Michael Waltrip Racing has seen great improvement this season, however. The team currently has one driver (David Reutimann) in Chase contention, and all three teams solidly inside the top-35.

When it comes to the No. 20 car (the team Stewart drove for his first 10 seasons in the Cup Series), the team is struggling to stay inside the top-35 with 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano.

So has Logano called on Stewart for a little comfort?

"He hasn't," Stewart said. "But I feel bad for those guys because I know they deserve better than that. It's just a matter of time before Joey hits his stride. He's got a lot of talent. That's why he's in that car. It's just a matter of getting used to it."

Stewart knows the organization isn't the problem, he won two Cup championships with the No. 20 team.

All 10 years of that run were with Crew Chief Greg Zipadelli. This year, Stewart is working with Darian Grubb, former Daytona 500 winning crew chief.

Stewart said he feels the two have gotten broken into each other and can only get better with each week.

"Every week, we have spent more time with each other," Stewart said. "The one thing that's happened from day one, is we felt very comfortable around each other, you know, just in casual conversation. So from that side, it's been really easy."

At the racetrack, Stewart said it has taken a little bit of time to get used to his package and the cars being brought each weekend.

"But every week that we go out and have a good run, I gain that much more confidence in him, in that relationship that we have, with the communication just getting stronger and stronger each week."

Prior to the 2008 season, Joe Gibbs Racing opted to switch from Chevy to Toyota. Stewart made it clear that he as unhappy with the manufacture switch, and appears to be delighted to be back in a Chevy in 2009.

As for the differences?

"It is feeling-wise," Stewart said when asked if there was a difference. "It's not so much physically as much as it is in your mind. I'm proud to be back in an American car. That being said, I mean, the physical part of it is it's a motor difference really and decal package.

"You know, there's that feeling and pride of knowing that you're in an American car, that we're out there racing with some of the best manufactures in the world. So that sense of pride is the biggest difference."

Stewart heads to Texas this weekend having one win, three top-fives, and eight top-10 finishes in 14 career starts. He has an average finish of 14.2 and has led 452 laps at the 1.5-mile track.

Stewart will also take part in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, getting behind the wheel of the No. 33 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevy.

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