For racing icon Tony Stewart, the year 2021 has presented quite the mixed bag. In his personal life, the three-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion has experienced the joy of getting engaged to NHRA drag racer Leah Pruett. Professionally, Stewart has also overseen the successful launch of the Superstar Racing Experience, a series which he both co-owns and won the first-ever championship in.
But in Stewart's most prominent job as a NASCAR car owner, 2021 has proven to be extremely vexing. After winning 10 times in the Cup Series in 2020 -- plus nine Xfinity Series wins with Chase Briscoe -- Stewart-Haas Racing has been mired in an extreme down year in performance and competitiveness: It took the company until July to win a race, with Aric Almirola scoring the team's only victory so far. Kevin Harvick, after winning nine races last year, has zero wins and instead relied on points to earn a Cup Series playoff berth. Harvick is the only SHR driver in the top 20 in points, as Almirola, Briscoe, and Cole Custer all rank between 22nd and 28th in the pre-playoff standings.
All this as Stewart has had to lament a major missed opportunity: At this time last year, Stewart publicly advocated for Kyle Larson, who he had serious interest in hiring to drive for SHR despite his standing as a pariah during a suspension from NASCAR for using a racial slur. Stewart's efforts to hire Larson were overruled by Ford, and he has since had to watch Larson be hired by Hendrick Motorsports, win a season-high five Cup races.
This week, just ahead of the final race of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season at Daytona International Speedway, Tony Stewart sat down with CBS Sports to discuss SRX, NASCAR, and other topics.
Q: I'll start off asking about SRX. It's been over a month now since the first season ended, and there seems to be a lot of excitement for the series' future and what more it can do. What have you and Ray Evernham done so far in terms of planning for SRX in 2022, and do you anticipate any aspects of the series will look different next year than they did this year?
Tony: "Obviously after the first season you're gonna make tweaks and changes, but extremely happy with the product obviously. Happy with the fact that after Week 1 we took the fans' feedback and were able to implement that for the next five weeks. I personally would like to add a road course race to the schedule next year, definitely looking at driver lineups and potential changes in the driver lineup for next year. But really happy with the product. I think it was well received by the fans – the ratings showed that, the feedback showed that – and excited about it.
"The crucial part right now is securing the funding to do it. To have that many race cars and to be on the road for six straight weeks and have these guys in hotel rooms and all the equipment that we have to not only buy or rent to run all this is expensive. So securing the funding for next year is a big key right now. But if we can do that, I feel like the amount of changes for next year will be very small."
Q: One of the most popular elements of SRX was the local all-star car, which gave a couple of drivers from the grassroots level their shot at racing on a national stage – And in the case of Luke Fenhaus, it really launched him into the spotlight in a way winning the Slinger Nationals alone couldn't. With how important money has become in racing and how many grassroots guys aren't getting a shot because they can't market themselves to a sponsor or whatever, how important do you think SRX can be as a springboard for launching drivers to prominence and allowing them to further their careers?
Tony: "I think it's huge, and I'm a big, big fan of Luke's. Spoke to him the other day as a matter of fact. I think a kid like that deserves a shot. He racks up impressive numbers and race wins and top 3s, top 5s, but all of that doesn't get shown on a national stage. So for SRX to be able to help showcase his talents, I think that's huge in this series.
"It's more than just having an IROC series of current champions and current stars. To be able to add that element and bring that car into the field and have Kody Swanson, Bobby Santos, Doug Coby – You've got guys that deserve to have shots at the big-time that may get overshadowed just because the series they're running doesn't get enough national attention for the car owners at this level to see those guys first-hand.
"Doug Coby getting a one-race Truck ride (Coby will drive for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Bristol) – that may or not ever have happened, but for sure happened because of the SRX race and (GMS Racing President) Mike Beam being there and seeing his talent. So I think that's proof that this is a good element to the SRX Series that we never really thought about at the time. We thought it was cool to showcase a young guy's talent, but didn't know that it would springboard somebody like that. So I think that's a cool element that we have."
Q: I'll ask this about Luke in particular: If he were to get a ride in NASCAR tomorrow, how do you think he would stack up compared to some of the drivers in Xfinity or Trucks or ARCA right now?
Tony: "I honestly think he would do extremely well. I spent a lot of time while we were at Slinger with Luke, and like I said, I've talked to him a lot since then. Luke is probably one of the most mature 17-year olds I've ever met in my life, let alone a 17-year old race car driver. His focus and his maturity would make him extremely good if he could get an opportunity right now.
"So I'm hoping that somebody – And I've even brought him up to Ford in Ford meetings and said 'Hey, we need to keep an eye on this kid, he has potential to make it'. So I think it's extremely important that we all focus on him right now. I think this is a kid that legitimately deserves a shot and has the mental capacity to do it. There's a lot of kids that are 17 years old that can drive race cars, but don't understand how to put it all together. And I think Luke's one of those kids right now that has the mental capacity to understand the big picture and how it all works."
Q: On the subject of guys with talent: Last year you stood up for Kyle Larson at a time where not a lot of people were, and I know you had very legitimate interest in hiring him. That didn't happen, he ends up at Hendrick, and now he's the hottest thing in racing. Are there times where you look at what Kyle has been doing and how dominant he's been and just say "Damn it"?
Tony: "I said that the day that I found out I couldn't get him. I said it that day – probably in words that I can't use right now – But I said that a lot that day, and have said it every day since then. That will be one of the biggest regrets of my professional career is not getting that kid and having an opportunity to race him in our cars.
"He's a once in a lifetime driver. I say he's a unicorn. He's just literally one of those guys that – who knows – I'm sure in our lifetime we're gonna see somebody else come along that's gonna be like Kyle, but it's probably gonna be a long time before we see another person step up and another driver step up and do what Kyle has been able to do in the last year and a half."
Q: Instead of Kyle, you ended up promoting Chase Briscoe to drive the No. 14 car, and he's really seemed to come into his own as a Cup driver over the summer months. What do you think the difference has been for him and for SHR as a whole after the way 2021 started?
Tony: "Well I think the hard part is it's the same challenge for Chase as what we had with Cole (Custer) last year. We're taking a driver that was very successful in the Xfinity Series, and then you move him up to the Cup Series where he's getting zero practice and getting thrown to the wolves every Sunday of trial by fire so to speak. To be able to do what they've done – what Cole did last year in winning a race in his rookie season, and I think Indy two races ago was really a good way to showcase what Chase's talent really is. He's an excellent road course driver, but that's not his background – I mean, he's a dirt-track kid from Indiana. So it shows what kind of talent he has as well.
"When it came to trying to figure out the Larson piece, we weren't going to let Chase Briscoe go – We had plans for him as well. So it wasn't that he got his opportunity because we lost Kyle. He was going to be in a Cup car in our system at some point anyway. But that got expedited by losing Larson and got him that shot earlier.
"It's just kind of been one of those seasons where he's made the most of what we've been able to give him for the year. It's not a typical year for SHR – this is not the standard that we're used to, it's not the performance that we're used to. The frustrating part for us as an organization is we can't put our finger on exactly what is wrong. But if we do, that's the first part of the solution is identifying the problem. So we're all excited about eventually figuring this out, but we're frustrated because we're two-thirds of the way through the season and have not been able to identify exactly what the problem is. But we're all working as hard as we can in trying to identify the problem.
"In the meantime, we've got four drivers, four crew chiefs, a ton of engineers and a ton of employees at Stewart-Haas Racing that are fighting their guts out every week to work with what we have and trying to make the most of it, but at the same time trying to figure out what the problem is as well."
Q: I would assume that Aric winning at New Hampshire and Chase contending for the win at Indy took the sting out of what the year's been like a bit?
Tony: "A little bit – I like those one-off scenarios like that, but I'm a big fan of consistency. Getting those good runs like that, that's a big morale booster for each of those drivers and each of those teams, but it doesn't help us in the big picture of figuring out what the problem is and what to do to solve it and remedy it. We'll stay focused on that task, and it's a breath of fresh air for those two scenarios obviously, but we have to ultimately figure out what the scenario and problem is so we can fix this and get back on track."
Told ya I had something to say. Two words: Free. Money. We all want free money right?! @Mobil1 is giving you the chance to win weekly cash prizes of $1K or more during the upcoming #NASCARPlayoffs. Check it out! 👇#Mobil1Thousand pic.twitter.com/r7kovdZGTV— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) September 1, 2021
Q: You're promoting the continuation of the Mobil 1 Thousand ...This is your tenth year partnered with Mobil – From an activation standpoint, how important has making the playoffs become for the sake of a team's sponsors and what plans they lay out from a marketing standpoint each season?
Tony: "It's huge, obviously. Those last 10 weeks and during each phase of the playoffs, those guys that are still in, they are a lot of the focus of the broadcasts of the race each week. So for our partners, it's a very big proponent of why they are in the sport is to get that brand recognition, to get the exposure that they get. And to get two of our cars (in the playoffs), that's very important for us.
"Obviously we'd love to have four cars in there and be able to do that much more. But to get two in this year right now, and hopefully God-willing and we have good luck at the demolition derby at Daytona, we'll get one more in and we'll try to get three of these cars in. But we're looking forward to it.
"Obviously Daytona is an awesome race to have as a last cutoff race. It's exciting for the fans, it is terrifying for us as car owners and drivers and teams knowing what can happen. But it's definitely going to be exciting this weekend, and that's a big proponent for Mobil 1 to be able to not only get that exposure, but also show what their character is as a corporation too. To be in a scenario post-COVID of being able to do so much to give back to race fans and to have this promotion -- No matter what team it is, if it's a Mobil 1 team that wins, then the fans win. And that's something that I'm really proud of our partnership with Mobil 1 and how they're giving back."
Stewart is promoting the Mobil 1 Thousand, which has raised its stakes for the NASCAR playoffs: Beginning with the Southern 500 at Darlington, fans will have the chance to win thousands of dollars if a driver who uses Mobil 1 takes the checkered flag in any playoff race. The prize totals for the Mobil 1 Thousand, which has already awarded $15,000, are being increased for the playoffs.