A special win for Stewart's crew
Thursday, May. 20, 2010
Tony Stewart might have actually had it easy.
He was too occupied at the wheel to think about all the years much of his team had been waiting, working and sometimes wallowing in NASCAR's hinterland. All Stewart had to do was the instinctual, as he chased down Matt Kenseth with two laps left in the Sprint All-Star Race last spring at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He would become the first driver/owner to win a NASCAR race since Geoff Bodine in 1994 and prove that he could handle both highly stressful jobs. He would give an organization, winless since its inception in 2002, its first taste of validation.
He would not climb that fence as his team demanded. But he would celebrate mightily, sparking a wave of emotions and memories for so many invested in the effort for so many different reasons.
Aaron Kuehn had seen success as a tire specialist for seven years with Jeff Gordon. It was Kuehn who squirreled away the "3" flag Gordon waved out the window of his No. 24 Chevrolet in tribute to the late icon when he tied Earnhardt's win total at Phoenix in 2007.
But when Stewart took the checkered flag it was still special. But it was also odd after being let go by Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
"That win was tough for me," Kuehn said. "It was the first time I won not being with Jeff, so I kind of stood back behind the pit box and tried to absorb it. It was weird to go to victory lane with someone else.
"I think I was more happy in the fact those guys got to win a race after trying so hard. They all work so hard and everybody in the garage works as hard as the next guy. You're just fortunate to have an opportunity to win. The most special thing was getting to watch those guys go crazy."
Among them was Adam Gravitt, a shock specialist who had come to Haas CNC Racing in 2004 with a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech. He had allowed himself to start believing in dreams of victory when the garage rumors became rampant that Stewart was about to buy into, take over, or somehow assume a major influence over the struggling race team, whose owner, Gene Haas, was in prison for federal tax fraud.
The anticipation was much the same as he waited for Stewart to chase Kenseth down. And then the champagne bath began. The bottle still sits on Gravitt's bar in his living room. It's not likely to ever move.
"We worked really hard," Gravitt said. "It wasn't just the beginning of last year when we just suddenly started working hard, you know? We heard some rumblings probably about three quarters of the way through the (2008) season, and it was just one of those deals where we were really excited about it, but we were really nervous too because we didn't know the whole situation.
"It could have been one of those situations where he wanted to start from scratch with his own crew, his own people, but at the same time, when we kept doing what we were doing and we worked hard, all those guys proved they were a good race team."
Darian Grubb had already won the signature NASCAR race before he ever agreed to leave Hendrick Motorsports and become Stewart's crew chief. As a replacement for Chad Knaus, who had been banished from the grounds and later suspended because of a rules violation in 2006, Grubb helped guide Jimmie Johnson to his first Daytona 500 win. For Grubb, who went on to win twice in the four races Knaus was banned, the satisfaction of the All-Star win was in a plan well-constructed and executed.
At the end of the 2009 season, even after four wins and a sixth-place finish in the final points standings, it was the memory of the first win Grubb rekindled with his Christmas gift to the crew: a diecast of the All-Star car autographed by Stewart.
"It was the culmination of a lot of effort," Grubb said. "Seeing Tony just go out there and drive his butt off and pass Kenseth and get the win was really cool for the team. All new equipment, all new team, and trying to put that together and to have a win that early in the season, really put it all together."
Bobby Hutchens took over the daily chores of forging a competitive team from the roughly 75 holdover members of the Haas CNC shop and the influx of newcomers that were brought in by Stewart. The organization had shown promise in the weeks leading up to the All-Star Race, with runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Richmond. But the All-Star win preceded a spurt to the top of the standings.
"I think the biggest thing was it let everyone at Stewart Haas know we could win a race," Hutchens said. "We had potential to be a front-running car and that car had come from fledgling stage in January to a contending stage by May and that kind of set the tone for the summer."