The string of blazing spotlights that rimmed the ceiling glared down on Tony Stewart like the French fry heater at Dairy Queen. Tiny sweat beads shimmered on his forehead, but he was cooler than a triple-thick milkshake.
A swarm of bored, burnt scribes wondered this and that about him and his new endeavor, Stewart-Haas Racing. He'd said since midsummer that the double life he was leading wouldn't alter his focus. From Friday through Sunday, it was all about the 20 car. Monday through Thursday, though, was spent largely focusing on people.
OK. Sure. Fair enough. In the moment, that's a fine diversion to tell oneself.
But now that the whirlwind had settled, and he'd had two full weeks since season's end to digest it all, he'd have to admit in hindsight it was distracting. Right?
"It really wasn't," said Stewart, seated in a director's chair and decked out in a business suit (no tie) last week in Manhattan, honest as always, yet uncharacteristically diplomatic.
To what does Stewart attribute this versatility?
"I think that it's because of my background in open-wheel cars, having to switch gears and say, 'OK, this is the setup we have in this car, but now I have to go run my heat race in that car,' while keeping in mind the other package we've got over there. I've been programmed that way."
The coming year will test that versatility like none other. As owner, Stewart will be faced with team issues, budget meetings and the occasional disgruntled employee. To assist in that responsibility, SHR assembled a fine management structure. Stewart hired Bobby Hutchens -- the decades-long Richard Childress Racing veteran who is revered as a people person -- as director of competition. Ryan Newman is on board as the second driver.
Hutchens is crucial to Stewart's success. Proper management of the company will enable Stewart to focus on driving. Stewart must focus on driving. If he performs badly on the racetrack, everything suffers.
While Hutchens joins Matt Borland -- who guided Newman to 12 victories and 37 poles as crew chief -- in dissecting competition-related issues, chief operating officer Brett Frood will oversee the business aspects of the company.
Stewart mentioned last week how critical that is to his confidence in the project. And as always, Eddie Jarvis -- Stewart's right-hand man who facilitated many of the team's dynamic hires, including Hutchens, his crew chief Darian Grubb and Newman's car chief Jeff Meendering -- will assist, as well.
But ultimately Stewart is the face of the company. And he must accept the accompanying responsibility.
If it goes badly in the race car, he can't throw a tantrum or run and hide.
There will be no Joe Gibbs to take the on the media crush in his place. Stewart must face the music.
It seems he gets it. He understands what's at stake.
"I don't know that it's comforting [to call the shots]," Stewart said. "I guess it's a larger sense of responsibility now. I had to go through year-end bonuses with my other companies, and there were 42 people. And it's not just 42 people. In, I'd say 30 of those cases, those people are married and have children.
"So it's not only those 42, it's their spouses and children. And it's the same way with the new race team. It's over 100 employees. I'm responsible for them, their spouses and their children.
"It makes you think about every decision you make. It's not, 'How does it affect me?' " It's, 'How does it affect everybody?' That's a huge sense of responsibility. It's hard to explain until you get in that situation, what that feels like."
A key variable is performance. Mediocrity is not conducive to success in the NASCAR business model. Stewart said he expects far more than that. If he manages to run well early, morale will build. Folks will buy into the system. If he doesn't well, it'll be interesting.
Given NASCAR's testing ban, there won't be as much on-track data at his disposal as there would have been otherwise. But NASA would marvel at the computer-simulation at his disposal. He has a rolling wind tunnel and a seven-post shock dynamometer on the property, and of course he'll tap liberally into the Hendrick Motorsports information juggernaut that will supply chassis and engines.
"You still are going to go to the [Virginia International Raceways] and the Myrtle Beaches and still test," Stewart said. "[NASCAR's policy] eliminates the Nashvilles and Kentuckys.
"It's not going to eliminate testing. It's going to cut it back some. From a financial side, it's great. From a communication and knowledge standpoint, for me as a driver and working with Darian, that's the part that is going to hurt us a little bit.
"But it's not two new crew chiefs that are totally new to this sport. It's not two new drivers, so I feel like that will lessen the blow of having less testing. But we all realize why we're in this situation. We all realize why we're not going to be testing in the first six months. That's something we're all conscious of -- it's the same for everybody, so at the end it's really going to help all of us."
To date, Stewart hasn't spent much time at the SHR shop. When the season ended in mid-November, he flew home to Indiana to decompress. But he'd wake up in the morning and think about the shop. He'd eat lunch and think about the shop. He'd go to bed and think about the shop.
"It wasn't a feeling of guilt of wanting to be down there, it was a feeling of want: wanting to be down there in North Carolina, being in the new shop and around the guys and seeing how they're getting along with each other, and to start that learning process," Stewart said.
"I'm not running the race team. I'm learning about how to run the race team. I've got a really good teacher with Bobby Hutchens. I'll be at the shop a lot, which I'm not opposed to. I've been home and tried to relax at home, and I find myself wanting to be at the shop down in North Carolina more. I'm content to be there all winter."
His entire life, Stewart has excelled on the racetrack. He's done nothing but win, consistently, throughout. And despite just one Cup victory in 2008, he is quite proud of the year overall. He went to Victory Lane, either in Cup or Nationwide, at three tracks on which he'd never won -- Talladega (Cup), Darlington and Fontana (Nationwide).
I want to know that when our trailers roll in there that people look at us and say, 'These guys have a shot to win. We have to beat these guys to have a shot at it tonight.'
-- Tony Stewart
Plenty of unknowns await. Ryan Newman's No. 39 isn't yet fully sponsored, though Stewart did meet last week with a potential backer. The economy is down, but he doesn't feel added pressure to perform.
Really, despite so many differences to come, the philosophy is no different.
It's always been about trophies. And it will continue to be.
"I don't know that I really have a philosophy," Stewart said. "I just know that every week, no matter what car it is that we take -- whether it's a midget or a silver crown car or sprint cars, or whether it's the Sprint Cup cars we're taking this year -- when we go to the track I want to be competitive.
"I want to know that when our trailers roll in there that people look at us and say, 'These guys have a shot to win. We have to beat these guys to have a shot at it tonight.' So that's the way we've always been, whether it's racing [remote-controlled] cars, go-karts -- we want to see people look and go, 'Man, they showed up again this week.' That's the way we want to feel every week when we come into the racetrack. No matter what type of car it is.
"If I'm playing video games I don't like to lose. So whatever it is, whatever we're doing, I want to be good at it. We're stretched out over different forms of motorsports, but the goal every week is the same -- win. Be competitive. Know that we have a shot every time we show up at the racetrack. That, I guess, is our philosophy."
And just how badly does he want to man that car right now?
"There's a lot that has to be done," he said. "It's not like we just go down to the dealership and say, 'Hey, I want that,' and drive it off the showroom floor. There's a lot of people doing a lot of work right now, and it makes me look forward to the day I can get in my own car for the first time and see what the impact is going to be like."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.