Boy, has Tony Stewart evolved.
Stewart couldn't find his tail in NASCAR's Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) before making the jump to Cup competition in 1999. But in the 399 races since, his transition has been magical first as a driver and now as an owner-operator.
As the new kid with the new team at Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart admits he "was just happy" to have the opportunity to race full time at NASCAR's top level. As a rookie, Stewart was forced to qualify the No. 20 Home Depot car on time. In his debut in the 1999 Daytona 500, Stewart started on the front row. His first pole came seven races later at Martinsville. Stewart won his first career Cup race at Richmond that fall in his 25th career start.
Under the JGR banner, Stewart won two Cup championships, 33 races and 10 poles. He remembers battling Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte to score his first win at Richmond 374 races ago. And Stewart savored winning in front of his hometown fans in Indianapolis not once, but twice.
After entering the NASCAR ownership arena last season, Stewart won four points races, the All-Star Race and finished sixth in the point standings. His teammate/driver Ryan Newman also qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and finished ninth in points.
Last week at Phoenix International Raceway, Newman scored his first victory under the Stewart-Haas Racing banner. And on Friday, Stewart landed his 11th career pole position.
Stewart considers the organization's recent success "awesome."
"Obviously, with the 14 car last year we had a great season," Stewart said. "At the end of the year, it was great to get both of the cars in the Chase and have us both running good, but the one thing we missed was getting (Newman) that first win last year. To get him that first win for the organization this early in the year, that totally made it for the organization. There's an attitude in the shop that hasn't been there, period.
"Now that we've got both cars that have won, it's a great feeling. It's more than just being an owner, it's having a teammate like Ryan that's a friend away from the track too. I know how much it meant to him and I know how much it meant to everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing to finally get that first win."
This success, both as an owner and driver, is a credit to his experiences leading into Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway, the 400th start of his Sprint Cup Series career.
Stewart often credits his former owner Joe Gibbs with exposing him to the keys of building a successful team. Like Gibbs, Stewart had a head start developing his organization with the assistance of Hendrick engines. But the most valuable lesson in establishing a winning organization is the human capital.
"One of the hardest things about putting together a race team is always the people," Gibbs said. "Can he get together the right people to win in pro sports? I would have to say that's where Tony's done a great job. It's very hard to do in pro sports, but I think that's where you kind of look at Tony and say, 'That's been a great job of putting the people together and being able to win in pro sports'.
"That is one of the toughest things, picking the right people, getting the right chemistry and being able to win. Certainly, Tony's a gifted guy, but I would have to say putting together the right people over there, that's where he's done the best job."
While Stewart has established winning organizations in other series, he knows he must build consistency to reach that goal in NASCAR.
Given Stewart's previous track record, its just a matter of time.