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NASCAR Preseason Fan Festival

Stock Car Racing Topics:  NASCAR

NASCAR Preseason Fan Festival

Tony Stewart
January 16, 2009


HERB BRANHAM: We're joined by our two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion, Tony Stewart, this year back in a new team, Stewart-Haas Racing, driving No. 14 Chevrolet, Old Spice/Office Depot sponsorship. We're also joined by people on a teleconference, so we'll be coming to questions from that audience, as well. New situation, how does it feel?
TONY STEWART: It's good, it's different for sure, but obviously we're going to do this again in three weeks, and you'll ask me that same question in three weeks, and everybody else will, too. It's going to feel a lot different obviously coming here as an owner and a driver but something that we're looking forward to. We're had a great off-season. We have enjoyed everything that we've done with the race team. I went home for about eight days, and after the second day I was wanting to be back at the shop. It's probably been the most exciting off-season I think that I can remember having.

Q. Other teams have had developmental programs, and now you as a team owner, what are your plans for a possible driver developmental program? And as a team owner in the Sprint Cup -- sprint ranks, how do you good about finding the talent for your cars?
TONY STEWART: Honestly, what we've done, and I think we've been really fortunate on the open-wheel programs so far, that we're at the situation kind of like a Steve Lewis was and Wilke's and Bobby's, as far as we've got to the point where drivers are going through your careers in open-wheel ranks, it's kind of been a distinction which is a huge honor to us. Most of the guys that we've had come through our system now is guys that have been in sprint car racing so literally you have a chance to watch them. It's not guys that you kind of plan early in their career and you say, okay, we're going to watch this guy and get him in our system. We've been able to watch guys come into midget car racing and watch them from there.
On a driver development side, I just want to keep my job right now as a driver. I'm not sure we're really worrying about that. I think Ryan and I are planning on being here a while and haven't really worried about that yet. We're more concerned with making sure we get the two teams up and going and get the performance that we want out of them first before we're going to worry about that.

Q. How irritated are you to have to be here with us tonight instead of at the Chili Bowl, particularly with the way Tracy ran last night?
TONY STEWART: Oh, gosh, that's an easy answer to answer. I'm missing it tonight. Levi is running at Chili Bowl tonight so I'm trying to keep my cell phone close to figure out how he's running.

Q. Where your teams are somewhere and you're teams are somewhere else, how do you find yourself wondering how they're doing, seeking information, and as you look ahead to Speed Weeks '09 as a car owner and driver, how much of a challenge is it going to be to separate that owner's role from a driver's role?
TONY STEWART: Real easy. Once we leave on the airplane to leave North Carolina I put the driver hat on. Still go watch my open-wheel teams like I always do. I think that's the great thing the way we've got it set up now is that when I show up at the racetrack all I have to worry about is driving. We've got a good system with Bobby Hutchins and the two crew chiefs involved I don't have to worry about being a car owner.
When it comes to all the open-wheel teams on the weekends when we're racing we've come up with a pretty good system over the years with those guys, somebody on the team, whether it's the PR department or whatever is sending me messages every event letting me know how the heat races went, if there's a caution in the main event they're letting me know exactly what's going on as it's happening. Even though I'm distanced from the other teams while they're on the road, I still get the updates and know what's going on, and it really works out good for us because I'm in the motor coach. We have that opportunity to spend a lot of time focusing on what's going on at Eldora and Macon and Paducah and with the race teams. We get that opportunity and luxury of being able to check in and get the reports from those guys as it's happening.

Q. What's your reaction to the rule change that gets you into the shootout, and how is that going to help you prepare for the 500?
TONY STEWART: I get more time on the track with a new crew chief and a new car and package. We're obviously very excited about it. It's one more race and that much more exposure that Office Depot and Old Spice get. It's really a big benefit to us being able to work with each other and get one more race under our belt before we get to the 500 a week later. We're very, very excited that that came out.

Q. Given the way the economy is going, did you pick a good time or a bad time to go into Sprint Cup ownership business? And also, do you at some point plan to start your own engine program?
TONY STEWART: I think that's where the demise of Daryl Waltrip's team came in is when I decided to do that. We've got a great partnership with Hendrick Motorsports and they've got if not the best engine program one of the best engine programs out there, and it always has been. Don't take something that's not broke and try to fix it, definitely. We don't plan on doing that.
You know, I feel like everything is exactly where it needs to be right now. I mean, we're a little bit behind on getting cars built, but I feel like having that luxury of not having to worry about an engine program right now is helping us get caught up, and having Hendrick chassis, all we have to do is hang our bodies right now. We're kind of in a good situation of not having to worry about those two variables and just focusing on building the cars.

Q. How about the economy?
TONY STEWART: I don't know that we really had a choice on that. This was an opportunity that picked us. We didn't go out and pick it. But I think it shows that timing is everything. I mean, we were able to secure our sponsorships with Office Depot and Old Spice and then getting Ryan signed and having the U.S. Army come on board his car makes me really proud as an owner that we were able to get all that done before the bottom fell out of the economy right now.

Q. Coming off about a month, I was wondering if you could share your greatest Daytona 500 memory with us, whether it be a race you participated in as a driver or one that you watched growing up as a spectator? And also, if you are fortunate enough to win the 500, what are the chances now that you're in the Office Depot car that we'll see you do a backflip afterward?
TONY STEWART: You can put all your money on no backflips. Not going to happen. Not unless I want to go to the hospital and be in traction for two or three months.
You know, I'm trying to remember what the first part of the question now was.

Q. Memories.
TONY STEWART: Obviously I don't have a memory; I can't remember what the question was (laughter).
You know, I think probably still it was watching -- I remember the race that Dale Earnhardt lost on the last corner of the last lap with a flat tire, and I remember Daryl Waltrip winning his first race and watching Dale Earnhardt Senior get his win. Those are probably the three that stand out the most. I think every one of them is memorable. Obviously Dale Jarrett with Joe Gibbs Racing; Petty, Pearson; Allison and Yarborough at the end of the back stretch with the fistfight and everything. There's so many huge memories of this event that it's really hard to pick one. I mean, they're all special in their own way, and we're obviously in different times. They're all pretty cool.

Q. I wanted to kind of follow up there. Given the state of the economy, could you imagine having to put together a team like starting right now?
TONY STEWART: From scratch, no, definitely not. You know, you would have to own a company that's doing well to probably do that right now, and I think we were -- I was in a very fortunate position to be offered an opportunity with Haas CNC racing to join their operation and help hopefully build it. I don't think if it were not for an opportunity like this, I don't think that we would have had this opportunity altogether, let alone with the economy the way it is now.

Q. You're involved in so many different kinds of racing as a team owner. What's the atmosphere now like around Charlotte, around Indy in terms of people that work for the racing industry? Are you getting a lot of résumés from people? Are you surprised how many people are out of work right now?
TONY STEWART: I am surprised, actually. I never thought that we would see the fallout of employees that we have being released from teams, not only from the Charlotte area, but like you said, in Indianapolis, whether it's drag race teams, IndyCar teams. I mean, the economy has really hurt all of motorsports. But I guess that's probably been the one thing that's been positive for us is when it came to look at hiring more people and better people, it kind of gave us a buffet atmosphere almost being able to look for people because there were so many of them available. That was the positive to the negative from our situation was being able to have that many people that were looking for jobs that we could sort through and pick the people that we thought were right for the program.

Q. Now that you're the owner in a Cup Series, have you seen any surprises, something that you never thought, maybe came out of left field that you hadn't anticipated, or is it because you've owned cars in other series that everything is pretty much status quo?
TONY STEWART: Probably the biggest thing that I've seen is that I actually can get up at 6:00 o'clock in the morning. I did that Wednesday when we had to fly down to New Smyrna to test. I didn't realize that there was actually a 6:00 a.m. until this year. That was a shock. The rest of it, I have to be honest, I'm not sure that anything has been a big shock or surprise. I think I had the mindset that I had a lot to learn and that I didn't know and don't know everything that I need to know about being a car owner yet but that if we were able to hire the right people that I would learn as we went, and that's what we've been able to do so far. Bobby Hutchins is a great mentor to me right now, and being able to learn from him, just so many little details that are very easy to overlook, and those are things that he has brought to the program already that's given me a lot of piece of mind. It's letting me get more sleep now again and allowing me to focus on being a driver and an owner instead of just worrying about being an owner right now.

Q. I was just wondering, it seems to be a dominant theme of change coming up for the '09 season. I was wondering, has there been any change that's been more difficult to adjust to so far?
TONY STEWART: It hasn't been for me. This is definitely the single largest change I've had in my life. But like I say, it's something that I've even been surprised at how much I've enjoyed it so far. I thought that even though we were going to be busy through the off-season, and I knew that going into it, that I'd want to be away and get away from it a little bit more than I have during the off-season. But I've really absolutely enjoyed being in Charlotte all the time. I've enjoyed being at the shop, seeing our guys and seeing how it's progressing. I mean, it's really been a fun transition. I'm comfortable with it, which is kind of surprising. It makes me think of the beginning of the end is coming or something.
But I really like being around our guys. I'm really enjoying watching a group of people that have never worked with each other start working with each other and learn each other, learn me, and for me to learn the system of how my role has changed in this series. So that has been -- it's made this an extremely short off-season because it's went by really quick, but it's not been because it's been dragging on me or tugging me back. It's really been a lot of fun to be a part of this process, and I think it's going to make coming to Daytona here even be that much more gratifying when we get here.

Q. Could you just talk about tonight and being here? Ryan Newman said the thunder is kind of gone from Preseason Thunder, but it's cold outside, the fans are lined up. I don't know if you've seen the lines or not, but could you talk about that?
TONY STEWART: It's cool. Obviously that's something that with preseason testing being canceled, this event is really important to get us connected with our fans again after a long off-season, or short off-season I should say. But that's what makes tonight so important, to have that opportunity to be with our fans again before we get here in three weeks to start racing. None of us tonight are worried about shocks and springs and sway bars and all those things that we'll be worried about when we come back here in a couple weeks. Tonight it's about being here with our fans, and that's something that I think we've all been looking forward to is getting back to our core group.

Q. First of all, as one of the car owners, are you involved in the solicitation -- I mean, the sales pitches to a lot of these companies? And if so, how much different is it now as opposed to seven, eight months ago when you were making them? How has the environment changed?
TONY STEWART: I'm not a huge part of the initial sales pitches, but once we've got feedback from companies that we've approached and have that interest, that's kind of where I get involved. But the thing that I've seen is that it seems like it's not -- all companies are still looking to advertise. All these companies are not just going to stop advertising all of a sudden because the economy is bad. There's a lot of them that are looking at it as a unique opportunity to take advantage of getting ahead of their competition. There's still money out there for the teams that's available. It's just the amount of it has changed, and I think the direction of seeing single sponsorships for a car for the season, I think there is going to be less and less of those, and it's more tailoring partnerships with companies to work with each other to make these sponsorships work. That seems to be the biggest thing that we've seen over the last half of the season is just how companies are doing these multiple sponsorships with each other to utilize each other and make it even that much more -- a bit more efficient for them, I guess, to utilize their dollars a little wiser.

Q. You all in the past have talked about races you'd like to win and goals you've set for yourself. What kind of goals do you have left as a driver, and how long do you see yourself running full-time in Sprint Cup?
TONY STEWART: Obviously I have no idea. I haven't really set an end date of when I want to stop driving. Obviously races you haven't won, those are always the ones to me right now that are important. Obviously the Daytona 500 is at the top of that list. But I think we've been lucky enough to win at all but three of the tracks we run at, and that's Vegas and California -- I'm trying to think what the fourth one is. It goes back to too many concussions, I guess. We've been lucky enough to win at most of the tracks we go to, but those tracks we haven't won, Darlington and Vegas and California, those three, those are the places we'd love to get that win at.

Q. Between the race team at Eldora and your other business interests, how many people total depend on you for a paycheck every week?
TONY STEWART: I know between the full-time people that we have or what we had before we started the Cup team, it was 46 employees that I had that were full-time people at the racetracks, and the rest of my organizations. Now it's close to almost 200, so it's grown quite a bit in a short amount of time.

Q. Are you worried that this tire testing ban is going to lead to tire wars like we saw two years ago when teams were buying from Michelin and Bridgestone and Hoosier and crisscrossing the country? Wouldn't it be simpler if we tested at the tracks we knew we were going to race at and be cheaper and easier?
TONY STEWART: I still think NASCAR's new policy, I still think that's going to save teams money. Ryan has went and tested twice, I've only tested once. I think if we could test at the tracks we were able to race at, I think guys would be tested all the time. You wouldn't have a week that goes by that you wouldn't have two or three guys from each organization testing each week. But I think it's going to help the teams save money.
Even last year when we would go to places like VIR, I think BFGoodrich had a tire there, Hoosier had a tire, Goodyear obviously, so I don't think you're ever going to eliminate that side of it, but I think that's the balance that NASCAR is having a hard time trying to figure out exactly what's the right thing to do that's not going to just absolutely devastate one company or another and keep them all involved that way.

Q. Looking forward to the '09 season in the off-season, was there any part of it, like, rejuvenation for you, or with all the challenges you've had, is it just another chapter in the Tony Stewart story?
TONY STEWART: It seems like it's been another chapter, but I've been more excited this off-season, I think, than I've ever been, other than coming into my rookie year. It's just been so different that it's been kind of a -- any time that you do something different, you're always excited about it, and it's not necessarily that we needed something new. But with that, it seems like we've really enjoyed the off-season. It's having something different other than just trying to get away for a couple weeks and trying to relax. That's always been the focus every off-season, and this year it's been, hey, get to the shop and see what's going on today, and that's something that I've really enjoyed. It's not something that -- even at Homestead if you would have asked me if I would have thought that's the way it was going to be, I wouldn't have predicted this, but I've really enjoyed the off-season. I've enjoyed being at the shop. I mean, it's gone by really quick. It's a surprise to me that we're already this far into January. It feels like it should be the middle of December to me right now, and I think that's because I've really enjoyed what's going on.
Everything outside of the Cup shop, the race teams, the racetracks, that's all -- I've still been just as involved in that, but now with the extra time that I would have off, I've been busy with the race team, and I've really enjoyed that side of it. It's something that has really surprised me even.

Q. As a fellow team owner, have you followed the Dakar Rally at all, and I'm not saying you have any interest in doing it, but what Robby Gordon has accomplished there impressed you?
TONY STEWART: What's the status?

Q. There's one race to go, one stage, he's 87 minutes behind but he's third.
TONY STEWART: Can he win it still? How long are the stages? I don't know. Does he have a shot at it?

Q. 220 K, but they're not going to do anything outrageous.
TONY STEWART: I think it's cool. Robby is one of those guys that -- Robby is good at being able to shift his focus and multitask and do his own programs and be successful doing it. I haven't been following it honestly. I've been a little distracted from that. But I think it's cool that -- when he tried it -- when he did it two years ago, I guess, he had some really good stages, won a stage and wound up having a problem that took him out. To hear where he's at right now, I think it's pretty cool. I think it's neat to see somebody like Robby that really works hard at not just the Cup stuff by his IndyCar programs when he goes and runs IndyCars and obviously his off-road ventures. It's neat to see him have that kind of success.

Q. Does he maybe not get the credit he deserves because of what he's able to accomplish?
TONY STEWART: I've said for a long time that he's one of the most naturally talented drivers that I've ever raced with. He just has that ability to get in a car and know how to get 100 percent out of it. You know, it hasn't always worked out for him, but to watch -- especially on the off-road stuff, you watch him in a truck or any kind of an off-road vehicle, and it's just unbelievable what he can do with it. I'm not sure that I'm ready to try something like that. I think I'd have to -- he's invited me to go pre-run the Baja with him, and that's something that I really want to do one day, but I'm almost scared to pre-run it with him because then I think I'm responsible for reading the map, and I can't read a newspaper in a car without getting sick, so I can only imagine skipping a line and saying, "right at the next tree," and it ends up being a brick building and us crashing.
I think it's neat. I think it shows his talent to go from a 3400 pound stock car to running through a dessert that you don't know and being able to accomplish what he does. I think it's pretty amazing.

Q. You mentioned DW starting that engine program not being such a good idea. Are there other things that you've learned from these drivers who have become driver owners and made mistakes that you can incorporate into your effort?
TONY STEWART: Absolutely, and the main reason is a lot of them have come up to us and said, this is where we made a mistake, and that's something that's always impressed me about the teams in NASCAR. Even though you compete against each other there's a lot of camaraderie and people that come up -- even when it was just a rumor that we were going to be a part of Haas' organization, Richard Childress was one of the first guys even before it was announced we were doing it, said if you do this and if there's anything we can do to help, let us know. That's something that has been a big safety blanket to a certain degree knowing you can pick up the phone and call Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress at any time. I don't know how much help Roush will be to me, but knowing there are other guys out there that have made this change and done it successfully and they've had to make their own mistakes, which I'm sure we'll do, too, but having those guys that are willing to say, hey, these are things to watch out for and these are mistakes that we made and help us not make some of those, that's something that's very valuable to us.

Q. If Joe Gibbs was an example for you in terms of how to hire people, getting the right people in, you talk about Robby Gordon, what kind of example is he to you as an owner in terms of, I guess, love of the sport, determination, that kind of thing?
TONY STEWART: Well, he's proof that you can still be an independent car owner and still be successful. I mean, he hasn't had the success that he's won it, obviously, but it's still proof that you can still exist as an independent car owner and still go out and compete. I mean, he got himself back in the top 35 in points, and that's a huge accomplishment in this series with multicar teams like there are. For him to do that as an independent car owner I think has been a big inspiration of knowing that it's not such a big scary thing to know that you're going up against the Hendricks and Childresses and Roushes and all these other guys that have been around a long time and not have an opportunity to be competitive.
I think him being out here every week is proof that you can still be competitive to a certain degree.

Q. I've got a two-parter. You're talking about car owners. Has any particular car owner had a major influence on you and the way you approach this season? And also, the Shootout invitation came pretty late. Are you guys going to be able to handle that okay?
TONY STEWART: We are. You know, we had heard that there was a possibility that we might get invited to run that event, so we kind of started working weeks ago to make provisions that if that happened that we would be ready. So we had a third car being built already to get ready for the Shootout.
That kind of got us caught up a little bit. We're still a little behind in getting that car prepared, but we'll be ready when it comes time to come down here, and very thankful that we got that invitation.

Q. Any one car owner that --
TONY STEWART: Actually two car owners. Obviously being around Joe Gibbs and J.D. Gibbs for the last 12 years, we've learned a lot from those guys. Great family, they've been great friends to me. They still feel like family to me. But between the Gibbs family and Rick Hendrick, it's been two great organizations that obviously -- we worked really closely obviously and were part of the Gibbs operation, and now we're working really closely with Rick and his group. It's nice to be able to take the best that you see from different organizations and be able to apply them to your team.
But the great thing is just like Richard Childress, those guys -- I can pick up the phone at 10:00 o'clock at night, and if I've got a question, I've always had that invitation from all those guys to be able to call, and Rick has always been very good from day one about the fact that we were going to be using Hendrick engines and chassis about being very helpful with what we're doing and what we're trying to accomplish, and Joe and J.D., even though we left their operation, they've been very good about giving us as much support as they can, too.
HERB BRANHAM: Tony, thank you very much. Good luck in the 500.

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