Newman's win proves Stewart-Haas is for real

When Tony Stewart won last year's Sprint All-Star race, it was a milestone for him and his new Stewart-Haas Racing team.

It was Stewart's first win with the new organization and proved that Stewart could indeed be successful as an owner/driver, validating his move from Joe Gibbs Racing.

When Stewart won again three weeks later at Pocono Raceway, scoring his first points victory with his new team, it was an even bigger moment for the operation.

But Saturday's victory at Phoenix by teammate Ryan Newman might have been the most significant moment yet for Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing.

There were few doubts that Stewart would continue to win races despite leaving Gibbs, where he won two Cup championships. Stewart is one of NASCAR's greatest drivers, and like the all-time greats, he can win with almost any organization.

And there were few doubts that Stewart eventually would build a strong team, though few predicted it would be as successful as it was in its first season.

Stewart's talent and success, not to mention his clout in the Sprint Cup garage, allowed him to attract quality personnel. Coupled with an affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports, it was practically guaranteed that Stewart would build a strong team and win races.

The big question facing Stewart was: Could he build a strong multi-car organization? Could he field two or more competitive cars and build an operation capable of challenging Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush Fenway Racing and NASCAR's other top teams?

Stewart-Haas Racing went a long way toward proving that last year when Stewart and Newman both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a monumental achievement for a new, revamped organization, one that had struggled in its previous five seasons.

But while Stewart won five races last year (including the all-star victory), Newman and his No. 39 team went winless, leaving plenty of questions about Newman, his team and the Stewart-Haas organization.

Newman answered those questions at Phoenix.

Though he did not dominate the race, Newman was running in the top five when the final caution flag flew with two laps remaining.

Because he was in the top five, Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson were in position to gamble on pit strategy, leading to the two-tire stop that vaulted them to second on the final restart.

Newman did the rest, charging by Jeff Gordon on the restart and holding on for his first win in 77 races, dating back to the 2008 Daytona 500.

The victory was huge for Newman, who has struggled for much of the past five years since his marvelous eight-win season in 2003.

Newman was once considered one of NASCAR's fastest-rising stars, beating Jimmie Johnson for Raybestos Rookie of the Year in 2002.

His breakout season in 2003 hinted that Newman, not Johnson, would be NASCAR's next big star.

Instead, the two drivers who broke into the Sprint Cup Series together have gone in opposite directions.

While Johnson has won 50 races and four straight championships, Newman has just five wins since 2003, including just one victory in four seasons prior to Saturday's triumph.

After making the Chase in 2004-05 -- and finishing in the top 10 in points four straight years -- Newman went into a funk, missing the Chase three straight seasons with Penske Racing.

He was winless in 2006-07 before his surprising win in the 2008 Daytona 500.

When Newman decided to leave Penske after the '08 season, he took a big gamble on Stewart's new organization.

As did Stewart, who gambled that Newman's struggles were due more to Penske Racing than Newman's driving ability.

Both proved last season that they made the right move, though questions lingered. Newman's win Saturday further validated their moves and erased all doubts about Stewart-Haas Racing.

"It was a long time coming for me personally, 77 races," Newman said. "But to see Tony Stewart win so many races last year and be so close but not get that victory, this is really awesome for us and our team."

Though Stewart is off to a typical slow start this season, and Newman is trying to fight his way back into Chase contention, the victory at Phoenix proved that Stewart-Haas Racing can indeed produce two winning race teams.

And that is important on another level as well. Stewart has made no secret that he would like to expand to three Cup teams if he can land another primary sponsor or two.

This is the perfect year to do it, with high-profile driver Kasey Kahne leaving Richard Petty Motorsports and signing with Hendrick Motorsports. Since that team doesn't have an available ride next season, speculation is rampant that Kahne will land with Stewart for the 2011 season.

Newman and his No. 39 team proved Saturday that it can give Stewart-Haas more than one winning team.

And that is yet another key milestone for an organization that is quickly becoming one of NASCAR's best.