INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Martin's face retreated into the wide, childlike smile he saves for discussing the things in his life that bring him joy. He was speaking about his friend Tony Stewart.
"I'm so proud of him," said Martin, standing in the sunshine of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Gasoline Alley. "His true colors are really showing now. They're really showing. He's one of the best persons I know in the world. It's really showing this year. I'm proud."
That's not a statement often used about Stewart. It's not the image the world has seen for the first 10 years of his NASCAR career.
Stewart swore he wouldn't change his outspoken ways when he became a team owner, but something has changed. The Tony Stewart his friends and close colleagues see is beginning to mesh with the one on display in public.
That change has been a major part of how Stewart has turned what used to be a struggling Haas/CNC team into Stewart-Haas Racing, a team challenging for the Sprint Cup title. With the right people, a keen business sense and new maturity, Stewart has made Stewart-Haas Racing an elite team.
Stewart leads the points standings heading into today's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, his home track.
"What he's done is just phenomenal," said Ray Evernham, the former owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports. "It's amazing and he's done it largely with about 80% of the people that were already there, brought in some key people. He was able to relinquish some responsibility. . . . It shows that Tony Stewart has much more depth than we've ever given him credit for."
Last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart announced that Office Depot and Old Spice would sponsor his new car and team. In the garages, the deals that brought together all the rest of the pieces of his new organization began to formulate through casual yells across pit road and conversations throughout the garage.
The infrastructure of the team predated him. Haas/CNC used Hendrick Motorsports engines, just not very well. It wasn't until Stewart arrived that the team was able to turn that partnership with NASCAR's most powerful team into success.
Stewart found the people to get it done, hiring general manager Bobby Hutchens and crew chiefs Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson.
"Where our situation is different than other owner-driver combinations is we didn't have to start from scratch," Stewart said. "We had a facility that was there. We had equipment and tools there. It was just a matter of tailoring some people to find the right key people for the right key positions. So that made it less scary."
With layoffs at every NASCAR shop last season, dozens of talented crew people were looking for work.
Gibson started looking before the ax fell at Dale Earnhardt Inc. The impending threat that the No. 8 team would soon shut down -- it did early this season -- caused him to take seriously conversations about being Ryan Newman's crew chief.
Those people he brought in, combined with those who remained from Haas/CNC, changed the culture of the race team. Team members started learning how to present themselves to major corporate sponsors. Grubb remembers discussing clean-shaven faces and tucked-in shirts with several members of the team.
The result was a totally transformed organization. When co-owner Gene Haas returned to the shop this year after serving a prison sentence for tax evasion, he barely recognized the place.
"Physically it looks very much the same," Haas quipped. "But the atmosphere is different."
This was now a team that wanted to win -- that expected to win.
Stewart also changed. He's calmer in the face of adversity but maintains the passion and excitability that made him Tony Stewart.
"I still enjoy the same things, I just don't get as riled up," Stewart said. "And I don't know why that is, either. I'm kind of glad."
Sponsors have been impressed by his maturity and commitment. Being a two-time Cup series champion and one of the sport's most popular drivers made Stewart attractive to sponsors.
His demeanor as their representative has delighted them.
"I knew he would fulfill his contract as every athlete should," said Chuck Rubin, North America marketing manager for Office Depot. "But he's gone above and beyond what he has to do in the contract that he has with his team. He truly understands that this is a partnership. He wants us to do well as much as he wants to do well. . . . His thoughtfulness, it's just exceeded what I hoped."
Rubin remembers one incident in particular.
Office Depot had a meeting with all of its regional managers in January. There was an ice storm in Dallas the day Stewart was to fly in for that meeting. His plane had to circle above Dallas. Then, because it didn't have enough fuel, the plane had to make an unscheduled stop in a different city before continuing to circle and wait for the storm to pass.
That Stewart didn't cancel the meeting impressed Rubin.