So what are Tony Stewart's plans for the NASCAR offseason?

Ask Stewart, and he'll tell you, "What offseason?"

Ready to embark on the next stage of his career as a Sprint Cup owner/driver, Tony Stewart knows he has to maximise his time at the race shop to help prepare his own #14 Chevrolet and the #39 of Ryan Newman for the season-opening Daytona 500, where Newman is defending champion.

Asked whether he intended to take time off before the season begins in earnest, Stewart said, "If you mean offseason like vacations, no -- but I'm all right with that. I actually went home after Homestead (the season finale), and every day that I was home, I wanted to be back at the shop, and the longer I was there (in Indiana), the worse I was feeling about not being at the shop.

"Normally, with six weeks to go in the year, I can tell you how many minutes are left until the season's over. This year after Homestead, I literally walked back to the bus and said I feel like I'm going to another race next week. I guess that's because I know I've got a lot of work to do at the shop.

"It's not like I'm there out there building cars every day, but just being there and being with our guys and letting them know that I care about what's going on and I'm as excited as they are coming to work every day, that's really important in the end. That's where my thoughts are, and that's what I want to do every day while I'm home."

There are still loose ends to deal with at Stewart-Haas Racing, renamed from Haas CNC Racing after Stewart acquired 50 per cent interest in the organisation. Newman still needs a sponsor for 16 races that don't fall under the U.S. Army sponsorship that will carry him for 22 events.

Stewart and Newman also must establish channels of communication with their new crew chiefs, Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson, respectively. Understanding and communicating in the same nuance of language is vital in conveying adjustments a car needs to optimize its performance. That Grubb is a veteran of Hendrick Motorsports, the organization that supplies Stewart-Haas with chassis and engines, is a major asset, as far as Stewart is concerned.

"It's not so much that we're a start-up team," the two-time Cup champion said. "It's an existing team that's changing a little bit, but especially with two new drivers and two new crew chiefs and two drivers that aren't used to the chassis packages we're going to be running, it's definitely going to be a big adjustment. The great thing is that, with Tony Gibson and Darian Grubb, I feel like we have two guys that are really good crew chiefs -- especially Darian, who knows the Hendrick system as well as he does.

"It's not necessarily as bad as it may seem for us. That doesn't mean that we're going to go to Daytona and come out of the box and lead 40 laps of the 500, but I feel like we've got really good people in place, and I feel like it gives us just as good a shot as anybody else, having these veteran guys. It's just a communication gap right now for us, but with me, it normally doesn't take long to get through the communication barriers."

As focused as Stewart is on his new venture, there is still room for nostalgia about the organisation he is leaving after ten years in the Cup series. Particularly poignant is his parting with crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who steered the mercurial driver to his two championships with Gibbs.

"This is a partnership with Greg and I - it didn't take long, just two or three years, to realize that we had something special here, and it didn't take but a couple more years after that to say we want to do this together and retire together," Stewart said after the Sprint Cup awards banquet in New York. "That's what made this a lot bigger decision midway through the year to make the change. So nights like tonight - or this night in particular - is harder. We've had fun at dinner tonight. We've talked, we've laughed, and even though the working relationship side is going to be over, the good thing is that the personal side and the personal relationship won't change.

"He's still going to be my big brother. He's still going to be there every week at the racetrack, and he's a phone call away at any time. It's not necessarily totally over. The professional side's over. The personal side's not."

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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