THE MAKEUP ARTIST IS GROWING IMPATIENT WITH TONY Stewart. The two-time Cup champion is sitting in a waiting room at a New York City television studio, leisurely sipping 18-year-old Macallan Scotch. It's a celebratory drink because, on this late-summer day, Stewart has been rushing around Manhattan for several hours—doing interviews, making a personal appearance to promote an Office Depot back-to-school program, meeting with fans, even shaking hands with admiring cabdrivers from faraway lands—and now he's at his final stop. When he tells the young woman with the combs and the powder and the brushes that he just wants to relax, she flashes a perky smile at the driver.
"It's time for you to man up," she says playfully to Stewart as she grabs his hand and leads him away toward her chair and mirror.
Once, not so long ago, this would have been the time to duck, a time when the driver known as Smoke would be certain to blow. Once, not so long ago, this was exactly what Stewart hated about his job—taking orders from strangers, powdering his face for the cameras.
Now, at age 38, he's a different man. Gone are the impetuousness, the volatility, the fire-breathing that made him infamous during his first 10 years on NASCAR's Cup circuit. As if to illustrate how much he has changed, when the freshly made-up Stewart strolls back into the waiting room, he plops down on a couch and calmly asks a p.r. person about what points he should make in the upcoming satellite interview. "I'm finishing this scotch, though," Stewart says with a grin, "because, damn it, I deserve it."
Indeed he does. Since he became a co-owner of the renamed Stewart-Haas Racing in July 2008, he has succeeded in doing something that few in the garage thought possible: He has rapidly built SHR into a powerhouse organization. Consider: Haas CNC Racing, as the team was known before Stewart took the reins—and the wheel—hadn't won a race in its seven years on the Cup circuit and had only one top five finish in its 284 starts. The team was so bad that in early 2008 owner Gene Haas told Joe Custer, who ran the day-to-day operations of Haas CNC, to either turn their race shop in Kannapolis, N.C., into a "truck stop" or make a radical change in the way the race team operated.
The radical change arrived in the stocky, stubbly form of Stewart, a two-time Cup champion and one of the biggest personalities in the sport. The results have been nothing short of phenomenal. Stewart's second-place finish at Dover International Speedway on May 31 propelled him to the top of the standings, the first time a driver-owner had led the Cup series in points since Alan Kulwicki won the championship in November 1992, a span of 556 races. When Stewart took the checkered flag at Pocono Raceway on June 7, he became the first driver-owner to win a points-awarding Cup race since Ricky Rudd in September 1998. And he finished the regular season atop the points standings.
"I never expected we'd have this much success so fast," said Stewart in September. "It's been a lot of work. This year I've been to my home in Indiana only 10 days. Last year at this time I'd been home probably 50 days. But now I'm in Charlotte and spending as much time in the shop as I can just trying to get everything right. It's been rewarding, especially since everyone in the sport thought this was going to be a train wreck at the start of the year."
So how has Stewart done it? How, in his first full season, has he transformed a foundering team into an elite one? The story begins on an autumn evening in 2007 in Charlotte.
JOHN BICKFORD HAS SEEN IT ALL. Bickford, the stepfather of Jeff Gordon, helped shape Gordon's career, guiding the kid from the backwater circuit of USAC Midgets to NASCAR's premier series before he was even 23 years old. The 62-year-old Bickford, a former mechanic and now the vice president of Jeff Gordon Inc., is known as something of a behind-the-scenes wise man in the Cup garage, and one day in October 2007 Custer asked him to come to the Haas CNC motor coach, which was parked at Lowe's Motor Speedway. After the two sat down Custer fired a question at Bickford: "How can we turn our team around?"
"Teams in NASCAR are built on franchise drivers," Bickford told Custer. "It's like in the NBA, where Shaq moves from one team to another and wins championships wherever he goes. Top drivers can do that too. You need a franchise player."