Just three days prior to winning the first of his five NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races last fall at Chicagoland Speedway, Tony Stewart proclaimed that he was the longest of longshots to win the title.
And we all know how that worked out.
In the most compelling finish in the history of the Chase, Stewart beat runner-up Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker at Homestead Miami Speedway based on those five wins.
With the start of the 2012 points season set to go next Sunday at Daytona International Speedway with the Daytona 500, Stewart is singing from the same songbook, downplaying his status as one of the favourites to carry off the 2012 Sprint Cup championship trophy.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t even worry about it at the beginning of the year,” Stewart said this week. “I think our season last year was proof that you’re throwing darts on a dart board right now if you’re trying to predict who’s going to win the championship this early.
“With technology changing as fast as it does, and the way our season went last year, 11 races from the end of the year I was like: ‘We’re wasting our time here.’ Then, all of a sudden, we got on a roll.”
Only this season, there will be no sneaking up on the competition the way he did starting at Chicagoland last Sept.19.
The No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet, on paper at least, should be even stronger than it was at any time last season.
Stewart, in a move that shocked most NASCAR fans, jettisoned crew chief Darian Grubb within hours of hugging him as the team accepted the big trophy from series boss Mike Helton.
It would be revealed later that the decision to fire Grubb had been made halfway through the Chase, but before the pair won three of the final five races.
Stewart replaced Grubb with Steve Addington, who had spent the previous two seasons on the hottest of hot seats, crew chiefing the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge for bad boy Kurt Busch.
And he then hired Greg Zipadelli, his old pit boss from Joe Gibbs Racing — who had guided him to his first two Cup championships — to oversee the Stewart Haas Racing organization’s competition side.
So, as far as Stewart is concerned, all that happened in the past few months of the magical 2011 season is in the rear-view mirror with no residual effects left to take into the new year.
“Now, everybody’s hit the reset button,” he said. “We’re all starting at zero again. You go down to Daytona and start at Day 1, just like everybody else.
“You realize that intensity’s still there, but you realize there is a learning process that’s going to go on with learning a new crew chief. It’s just part of the process, but you still keep that focus as high as you can.”
Addington should come into the new job with Stewart with his eyes wide open. He had a long-term friendship with Stewart through their shared history at JGR, when Addington was crew chief for the other Busch brother, Kyle, in the No. 18 Toyota.
Stewart feels that this is a good basis from which to start their new relationship as boss-employee.
“When we saw him at Joe Gibbs Racing and worked with him and Kyle together, Steve is one of those guys who has a lot of practical knowledge, having been in the sport a long time,” Stewart said. “But he’s one of those guys who I think is really easy to work with.
“I think that’s part of why we made that decision, because I felt like he’s a guy I could work with really easily. Steve just kind of is one of those guys who is a lot like Darian.
“I think he may not have all the engineering background that Darian has, but I think he’s got the practical knowledge and is a better fit for me.”
The question remains whether Addington will have the same kind connection with Stewart now that the pair are in that boss-employee relationship.
For his part Addington has jokingly — one would think — said that he sees 10 race wins this season for the No. 14 Chevrolet.
That is a pretty tall order, even for Stewart.
“If we win 10 races, I think that ties us for the most in the modern era with Jeff Gordon in a single season, so it’s pretty ambitious to hope for,” Stewart said. “I like his attitude. I want him to sign a contract that guarantees that, now. But, that’s what we want to do. You want to go out and win races.”
But Stewart’s plate as co-owner of Stewart Haas racing this season is much bigger than during his 2011 championship season.
Most notably he has expanded his Sprint Cup team with the addition of Danica Patrick, who will pilot the No. 10 SHR Chevrolet for at least 10 races this season, starting with the Daytona 500.
There are many in the NASCAR garage who feel that Stewart’s focus might get too wide, especially having to deal with all of the publicity — both positive and negative — that Patrick will bring with her.
Stewart bristles at any suggestion he will need to babysit Patrick through her initial Cup baptism. In fact, he thinks she will do just fine all on her own.
“She’s a talented driver,” he said. “Even before I knew her, you could see the confidence she has had from Day 1. Just watching what she did in IndyCar, and listening to her speak in her interviews, she knows she can drive a race car.
“It’s a matter of how long it’s going to take to learn the Cup side of it and learn how to handle a heavier race car.
“But she’s very confident. She is very good at analyzing what goes on on the racetrack and communicating that to her crew chief. So it should be fun to watch.”
Stewart is so confident that he said he would not be at all surprised if she won next Sunday in the Great American Race at Daytona and that if she did, it would be a great moment in NASCAR history.
“It would be big for everybody,” he said. “It would be big for her. It would be big for NASCAR. I mean, we haven’t had something that significant happen in quite some time. Obviously, having Trevor (Bayne) win last year was a significant moment for the sport. But I think we all know what it would mean if she won.”
Regardless of his other duties as team boss, Stewart still insists that his goal is to win a fourth championship and tie Gordon among Sprint Cup trophy winners.
And there is no reason, this season, to bet against him, despite any sand bagging he might try.