Stewart expects SHR to contend for title

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart had yet to take the track for his first official practice for Stewart-Haas Racing last season when he was asked why he would succeed when other owner/driver satellite teams have failed.

"Because we're doing it, that's why," the two-time Sprint Cup champion said.

Brash? Maybe.

Confident? Definitely.

But anybody who questioned whether Stewart could succeed quickly changed their minds after 18 top-10s in the first 22 races, including wins at Pocono, Daytona and Watkins Glenn.

He took the points lead 13 races into the season and had a 179-point advantage before the points were reshuffled for the 10-race Chase. He finished sixth, three spots better than he did in his final year at Joe Gibbs Racing, and his four wins were the most since 2006.

And, oh by the way, teammate Ryan Newman also made the Chase.

Their secret?

It's not simply because Stewart had his hand in it, but because Stewart and Newman are better drivers than any satellite team previously and because they had the support of Hendrick Motorsports engines and chassis.

Particularly because of HMS.

"A year ago this time, none of us knew what to expect, and it was a big question mark as to what was going to happen," Stewart said.

So how does Stewart feel entering his second season as an owner/driver?

"I feel like we have a shot at winning the championship this year," he said. "We led the points for 13 weeks. We missed a little bit when it counted the most, but we weren't the only ones.

"We still finished in the upper half of the Chase guys. For a first-year team I didn't think that was too bad. If we can do that the first year, I don't know why we shouldn't set our goals higher this year, set our goals where they should be every year when you start the season."

There are a lot of reasons to believe Stewart and Newman will be better in 2010. They have notes to fall back on that weren't there a year ago. They have a year's worth of chemistry and continuity. They have had time to analyze what few mistakes were made and take steps to improve them.

Most importantly, they have dependable equipment and talented drivers, factors that already have elevated SHR past many well-established teams.

"This year is a lot more relaxing," Stewart said.

It wasn't relaxing this time a year ago. While Stewart was off to a fast start, Newman opened with four straight finishes of 22nd or worse. That creates stress when you're an owner/driver.

"The biggest problem was we had bad luck, we started in a big hole," Newman said. "We had some pit stop problems in California and Vegas, and I think we were 31st or 32nd in points for the first three races. ...

"We overcame adversity; nobody wants to do that, but we did."

That proved just how strong SHR was and can be, and why those who didn't consider that team a serious contender before last season now should.

"I feel like both of us being able to get in the Chase last year was something I expect both teams to do," Stewart said. "I feel like the changes that we went through and the work we've done over the winter has prepared both of these teams to have a shot at running for the championship."

So does Newman, talking in terms you'd expect to hear from a driver with an engineering degree from Purdue.

"Two points define a slope," he said. "We have our point from 2009. Our point from 2010 will determine our success for Stewart-Haas Racing in years to go. Just going out there and having a lot better start in Daytona is extremely important, and getting that definition and to that second point so we can define our future at Stewart-Haas is also important for us this year."

Say what? Maybe Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, can put it more plainly.

"Last year we were building," he said. "But now it's actually good to be able to say we're strengthening. The areas we felt like we had some weakness, we know where those are and we were able to make a few changes here and there."

Just how much have they strengthened? When recently asked if his SHR cars are as capable of winning at Daytona as the cars he drove for Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart said matter-of-factly, "I won in July last year, didn't I? Can't get any stronger than that."

Brash? Maybe.

Confident? Most definitely.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.