First season a success for Stewart

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Tony Stewart's won't win the Sprint Cup championship this season, and his bid to join the late Alan Kulwicki in the NASCAR record books will have to wait at least another year.

That won't change how he views his first season as owner of his own race team.

"I think it's hard to be disappointed, no matter where we end up," Stewart said Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway.

Stewart-Haas Racing stormed out of the gates this season and had solidified itself as a championship contender by May. As Stewart built a lead of 179 points through the first 26 races, he seemed poised to become the first owner/driver since Kulwicki in 1992 to win the championship.

As an added bonus, teammate Ryan Newman also claimed one of the 12 berths in the Chase field.

But neither contended for the title. Stewart, who started the Chase seeded second, is currently fifth in the standings with two races remaining. Newman is ninth.

Regardless of where they stand after next weekend's finale at Homestead, Stewart will be pleased.

"Just by getting two cars in the Chase and winning the races we've won this year exceeded more than what any of you guys could have anticipated, and we could have anticipated," Stewart said. "We knew on paper that it was possible, but the reality of it was competing against great race teams every week.

"So to be able to accomplish this goal has been an awesome year for us."

Stewart is right in that few thought he'd have success in leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, where he won two championships and 33 races, to become part-owner of Haas CNC Racing. The team lagged behind in sponsorship and success, and molding it into a contender was supposed to be a long and arduous task.

But Stewart has had remarkable luck in landing sponsors -- he chalked it up Saturday to the charm of good looks of him and Newman -- and the increased funds was the first step in building a winner.

His streak continued this weekend, when the U.S. Army said it would be back for 15 races as Newman's primary sponsor next season. On Saturday, Stewart introduced Tornados, a brand of Ruiz Foods, as a five-race sponsor for Newman.

Tornados is new to NASCAR, a coup for any owner trying to bring in money during the current economic climate.

"This is a time when you don't see a lot of new groups coming into the sport," he said. "When we made the decision to start this venture last year and Ryan came on board, I think everybody kind of rallied around that and I think that's what's attracted a lot of these corporations to be a part of our family ... we were looked at from day one as the underdog.

"I think everybody sees now how hard we're working at it, and the commitment, that we have people who have wanted to join because of that."

Aside from sponsorship opportunities, Stewart's team offered a fresh start for crew members throughout the industry. He was able to lure crew chiefs Darian Grubb from Hendrick Motorsports and Tony Gibson from Dale Earnhardt Inc., and a slew of first rate mechanics and engineers.

Stewart also was able to grab Newman, who wanted a fresh start after several frustrating years with Penske Racing.

But it was still a leap of faith for Newman, who was leaving a proven organization for nothing more than a vision Stewart had of building a successful team.

Newman admitted Saturday he didn't know what to expect from this season.

"People ask about our expectations and our goals, and we had some goals, but we didn't know what the expectations were going to be," he said. "To echo Tony's thoughts, it's not that we would ever be disappointed because of all the things that we've achieved. It's just that we may not be totally satisfied.

"We've done a lot of great things as an organization. We've done a lot of great things as drivers to get to where we are. For me personally, to make the big change ... didn't have any idea what to expect. Just knew that I wanted to go out there and have fun, and if we had fun, we were going to be successful one way or another."