CHARLOTTE, N.C. - In 284 races spanning seven years and 12 different drivers, Haas CNC Racing never sniffed success.
Its equipment was below par, its sponsorship was inadequate and its drivers started each race knowing they had no chance to win. Johnny Sauter came closest, fifth at Richmond in 2007. So a top-10 finish once in a while was a more realistic goal for the fledgling race team.
Then along came Tony Stewart.
Although few had high expectations for Stewart in his first season as majority owner at renamed Stewart-Haas Racing, Smoke is proving them wrong one week at a time. His third-place finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, coupled with teammate Ryan Newman's sixth-place run, showed that Stewart wasted no time revamping his team.
'You know, it's coming. It just takes time,' Stewart said after his fourth top-10 finish in six races.
It became evident early that Stewart wasn't taking his latest venture lightly. He was lured from the comfort of Joe Gibbs Racing, where he won two championships in 10 successful seasons, for the challenge of tearing down Gene Haas' race team and rebuilding it from scratch.
He aggressively pursued the top talent in NASCAR. He used his wit and charm to draw sponsors that previously ignored the team. He scored Office Depot and Old Spice for himself, and the U.S. Army for Newman.
Stewart then persuaded Darian Grubb to leave Hendrick Motorsports and pulled Tony Gibson from Dale Earnhardt Inc., putting two NASCAR veterans atop his two pit boxes. Next came Bobby Hutchens, who left Richard Childress Racing to run Stewart's competition department.
With all the personnel in place, the team wasted no time proving itself.
Stewart was strong every time he hit the track at Daytona, and if a failed tire had not triggered an accident between Stewart and Newman in the final practice, Stewart might have contended for the season-opening Daytona 500. Although he finished eighth, it was proof that venturing out on his own had not cost Stewart a bit.
Newman was not as fortunate, slogging through a rough first month. He was 36th at Daytona and 28th the next week in California. Las Vegas and Atlanta were not much better, and Newman headed into the first off weekend of the season ranked 32nd in the standings.
It was maddening to Stewart, the car owner. He knew Newman's team had the same tools as he did but couldn't put together the one solid run to get things going.
Stewart-Haas Racing needed just one week off to regroup, though. Newman unloaded fast at Bristol two weeks ago and outpaced Stewart the entire weekend en route to a seventh-place finish. It was the confidence booster the team needed. The result carried into Martinsville, where Newman passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin for a season-best sixth-place finish.
In just two races, Newman has jumped all the way to 18th in the standings. Stewart, meanwhile, is seventh and in contention for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
'I think Tony has put a lot of sweat equity into it,' rival team owner Rick Hendrick said. 'I think he's surprised a lot of people. I haven't been surprised because I know the dedication and what they've tried to do.'
Hendrick is somewhat vested in Stewart's effort: He leases motors to SHR and is available for Stewart to use as a sounding board for ideas for his race team. He was unwavering in his preseason belief that Stewart would be a contender this year - and win races - despite all the naysayers who were certain he'd be humbled by the difficulties of running a team.
But he took everything he learned in 10 years working under Joe Gibbs and applied it. His stamp is all over the success, but Stewart credits the team he's assembled for the fast start.
'The great thing is that everybody does their job,' he said. 'I don't feel like I have to watch the guy that's paying the bills, and I don't have to watch the bills coming in and out because we've got good people who to take care of that area.
'Hiring those right people in those right spots, it's taken a lot of pressure off of me having to oversee everybody. I feel like I could literally not go to the shop for the whole year almost, and other than signing paperwork, it would run just fine with or without me in the shop.'
That could mean trouble for the competition. Few expected Stewart to lock down a spot in the Chase this season driving for what essentially became a startup team after he dismantled Haas CNC Racing. But if they're still in good shape after the first half of the season, Stewart and Newman could be legitimate contenders by late summer.
'It's like we say every Monday in our competition meeting: We've just got to build a database first,' Stewart said. 'Once we get that established, then I think the second time we come around we're going to be a little better yet.'