THE MODERATOR: We are now joined by the championship-winning crew chief of the 00 team, Jonathan Toney, and the championship-winning owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Tony Stewart.
Q. Tony, how have you seen Cole Custer grow and develop since becoming a part of this team, and really from the start to where he is now celebrating as an Xfinity Series champion?
TONY STEWART: Well, first of all, I’m not sure if I’ve drank enough alcohol to be allowed in the media center this late. Apparently there’s a new standard that has changed since the drove full time, but I’ll do the best I can with a limited amount of alcohol in my system.
I think the restart at the end of the race was a very good indication and example of how Cole has matured as a driver this year.
To watch him go in Turn 1, and he was literally third going into 1, and watch how he did what he had to do to get himself in a good position to get off of Turn 2 was remarkable. Literally I’ve watched the replay four times and I still haven’t totally 100 percent figured out exactly what he did behind the steering wheel, but it was super impressive.
As dominant as they were to the end and then have a caution come out at the end. And watching the Truck race last night you see how much chaos — maybe these Truck kids can learn from what happened tonight. You’ve got all four guys up there up front and never laid a wheel on each other and raced for a championship. Didn’t just play bumper cars.
I’m really proud of Cole. I’m proud of the job he did. I felt like he drove an excellent race the entire time from start to finish. He was smooth. He was methodical. Him and J.T. worked through what changes needed to be made, and when it came down to it, on a two-lap restart, the start of the restart didn’t look very good, but what he did getting himself in position off of Turn 2 and then finishing off in 3 and 4 was really impressive. I’m super impressed with the job he did.
Q. On the topic of respect, you watched the race last night and you’re like, I’m losing all faith in the next generation coming up. And then you watch the race tonight and you’re like, Maybe it’s not that bad. Where do you see the evolution of this next generation coming up and respect and understanding how to race and all that kind of thing?
TONY STEWART: I desperately hope young kids that are racing go quarts, quarter midgets, Bandoleros, you name it, any of these young kids, tonight is the example that you want to go off of, not last night. That was an ‘S’ show last night. The scary part, I had conversations with people today about it, and what scares me is these kids watch that and think that that’s what they’re supposed to do.
You go to go-kart races and kids’ parents are fighting because somebody is dumping — one kid is dumping another kid because that’s what they see on TV. Tonight was a great example that that’s not how you have to race. You can race clean. You can race door to door. You can race hard, but you can race each other with respect.
I think the Truck Series has zero percent amount of it. You watch that show last night and it was whoever was going to have a straight car at the end of the race.
Q. Despite that Xfinity and Cup are two different races, two different cars, different technology, is there anything you can take from your Cup team to your advantage in the Xfinity team from a technical point of view?
JONATHAN TONEY: Yeah, I don’t know. The cars have definitely evolved away from each other from the chassis and the suspension parts. It’s definitely different.
I’d say the biggest thing for us that we get from the Cup side is just experience. We have a lot of guys on the Cup side that I still have conversations with and we work with on that. Richard Boswell, which was a big part of this Xfinity program before, he’s been a great friend and a great colleague to work with.
I’ve been over and sat in his office the last two weeks for him to calm me down and tell me it was going to be okay and to be able to work through.
At the end of the day, we’re still going, for the most races, we go down the corner and turn left and get back in the gas and go back the other way. From that standpoint it’s all very similar.
But it’s maybe a little bit different approach because the technology has went a different direction. But still, the end result to get back around to the start-finish line the fastest, so still a lot of similarities there.
Q. Tony, I was watching you standing in the pit box watching the TV while Cole was doing his burnout, and you almost didn’t move for a matter of minutes while everybody was jumping over the wall. What was going through your mind, and how does it feel knowing you could not only double down but triple down with championships next week, as well?
TONY STEWART: Well, the reason I wasn’t moving, I was watching the replay trying to figure out how did he pull that off, and that’s literally what I was doing at the pit box.
When you’re a competitor you’ve got to understand every aspect of it, and watching it live as it was happening, it was like, What just happened? Comes off of Turn 4 and you see him get the lead back, and you’re like, That turned out great, but how did it happen?
That’s what I was doing, was sitting there watching the replays. I’m too old to jump over walls at Mach 12 like these young kids. But to answer your question, I’m excited that we won a championship this weekend. We have an opportunity for our two drivers next weekend to win a championship. That’s a pretty exciting scenario to be in at this point of the season.
Q. I know obviously tonight is kind of Cole’s night, but just wondered your thoughts, Kevin Harvick, obviously his last race tomorrow. What do you think about his career, just as he wraps things up?
TONY STEWART: I’ll lose a little sleep tonight, to be honest, and it has been the last couple weeks. It’s kind of sad to know that it’s his last weekend and Aric’s last weekend. Aric and I were teammates back in the Gibbs days, and obviously Kevin, I drove his Xfinity car for him before he came to SHR, and we’ve got a great friendship.
It’s sad to see both of these guys go. They’ve been great teammates. They’ve been great friends. But you understand all of us at some point have to change directions in our life.
I’m 1,000 percent supportive of their decisions. Kevin is one of those guys, he doesn’t make a change without having an eye on what his next move is, and I know he’s prepared for this, and Aric is the same way. Aric is just calm, cool and collected all the time. He’s a great family man, great husband, great father and a great friend. I’m excited for both of these guys. I’m excited for the next journey.
But it is sad knowing that 24 hours from now, it’s all going to be over. I’m appreciative what Kevin has done for the company, what Aric has done for the company. They’ve both been great leaders the last four or five years. Very, very proud that I was able to have them as teammates.
Q. What do you think Harvick’s legacy is?
TONY STEWART: Well, I think what people don’t realize is how good of a leader he really is. I’ve said this in media sessions numerous times. Kevin Harvick is probably the most well-rounded driver out there from the aspect that obviously he’s a great race car driver, but he knows how to build championship-winning teams and putting the right people in place. He understands the business side of it. He understands the marketing side of it.
I would challenge anybody to find somebody in the series as a driver that can do all those aspects as well as Kevin does.
Q. Jonathan, you’ve been with the team since day one, even before Tony came in. Then you were with Tony when he was driving. To see the team grow like this and get this championship and watch Cole develop as a driver, what does all this mean to you?
JONATHAN TONEY: I mean, definitely a night like tonight is special for those reasons, because I’ve been there so long. This is my 20th year at Stewart-Haas and Haas CNC Racing before that. When people asked me what I wanted to do in racing, my goal was to start with a team and be able to be there long-term to watch it grow.
As a kid growing up, seeing Richard Childress Racing grow into a championship power team and Hendrick Motorsports, to me I love to build stuff, whether it’s race cars or race teams or whatever it might be, so that’s where I get the enjoyment.
Like tonight to see it come full circle and you accomplish what your goals was, I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding to be able to do that.
On a personal side with Cole, I’ve known him since he was four or five years old and seen him with these shoes going down a ramp at the racetrack.
To see him grow into a young race car driver, now grown into a young man, married and all that stuff that you do when you get older, to see him mature has been special.
Then of course growing into it later, as Tony mentioned about Kevin, we’re seeing Cole Custer grow into that leader that a Kevin Harvick is, and that’s neat to see. It makes it rewarding.
To see him pull off the move he pulled here tonight in 1 and 2 to win a championship, it’s very special. Very proud, and just really happy to be part of seeing him win this championship.
Q. Amid a season where it’s been a struggle on the Cup side, does winning a championship in Xfinity provide a silver lining of sorts in this kind of year?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, absolutely. It helps with momentum and keeps the morale up at the shop. It’s been a tough couple years for the Cup program. But nights like tonight and finishing off the season on the Xfinity side with a championship and watching J.T. and Cole pull this off was something that the Cup shop will absolutely ride their coattails on that momentum.
That’s a boost that these guys, that the whole shop needs right now, whether they’re racing on Saturday or Sunday.
Q. When it’s a year like this and it’s frustrating, do you ever question yourself, Why keep doing this?
TONY STEWART: No. If it was easy, it’s not any fun. You take competitive people that want to win and be competitive, if it’s easy, it’s not worth doing. You might do it once. You might do it twice. But if it’s just that easy, and the only time you stay is if you win, then everybody would get out of here after they’ve won a championship.
These are the moments that define legacies and dynasties. It’s not always going to go right. This is a sport that the technology is constantly changing and evolving week after week.
Sometimes you hit it, sometimes you don’t. The thing that we still have at SHR, and it’s the Xfinity program, it’s the Cup program, is we’ve got a bunch of racers in there that don’t have any quit in them. They fight. We haven’t found stuff for the Sunday program, but we found it for the Saturday program, and I’m proud of these guys for what they did.
Q. Fair to say that there is no consideration of selling the charter or anything like that?
TONY STEWART: Why are we talking about this on Saturday night when this guy just won a championship? Let’s talk about J.T. doing an awesome job and our driver doing an awesome job winning a championship tonight.
Q. You were talking about Cole and how long you’ve known him. These last two weeks, how impressed have you been by your driver? You mentioned the move he made to win this race. I even think back to last week, you guys are facing the other direction coming to the finish, and he’s driving it backwards across the finish to advance and do what he has to do. How impressed have you been with him the last two weeks?
JONATHAN TONEY: Yeah, for sure. I remember being impressed with him all year, but these last two weeks… I’ve worked with Tony, and you can see when that desire is there and that championship is kind of burning in the belly, so to speak, and I’ve seen that in Cole the last two weeks. Really since the Chase has begun, even back to Homestead, we was right there and had a shot to win that race.
What impressed me about that was me and him both made mistakes at that race with him getting in the fence and me stepping over the line, causing us to come back down pit road.
But to see him bounce back from that at Martinsville and be able to regain his focus and get us pointed in the direction we needed to be to get him a car to compete at Martinsville, and then you have the chaos that ensued at the end of that thing, and him and Andy Houston having the presence of mind to say put it in reverse and back across that start-finish line was pretty impressive.
All weekend here this weekend, just laser focused all week, working together and trying to develop what we wanted to bring here to run as a setup and then just going through practice yesterday and then of course tonight. That was the stuff that’s going to be seen on the TV, of course, was the move he made tonight.
There’s a lot of things that he done that led this team and helped get us in the right direction to be ready to be in a position like that to be able to pull off a move like that to win a championship.
Q. Tony, there would be a lot of drivers who probably would have difficulty in making an adjustment of kind of being sent from Cup back down to Xfinity, but it seemed like Cole sort of embraced it from the start. I wondered what you thought how he would handle it this season, and is tonight a culmination of his determination and trying to fight his way back?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, it absolutely is. It was a calculated decision to move him back, and it was for him to gain confidence. Like J.T. said, his leadership is growing through this year and as his confidence has grown, the leadership side is coming into play, as well.
Yeah, I think it’s a valid question and a valid question that, yeah, when a driver makes it to the big show and then has to step back one series, there’s a lot of things that could go wrong. But there was a reason we made that decision.
It’s character-building. And it’s like I told him tonight before we came into the media center, I said, This is why we did what we did, and this is what you’re doing, the steps that you’re making and the progress you’ve made this year is exactly what we were hoping for.
He’s doing the right things. He will end up in a Cup car at some point I feel like in the future. He’s doing the work. He’s been a great leader at the shop with these guys.
I have the utmost confidence that he will be back in a Cup car at some point.
Q. Coming into next season, two new drivers are going to be in your cars. Do you look at this as kind of a reset to help build that momentum to go into the reset, especially if you do well next week with your other two teams?
TONY STEWART: I don’t know if we look at it as a reset necessarily. It’s not what we wanted as a company, obviously. I’d love to have Kevin and Aric back in the cars next year. But I’m excited about the direction our program is going.
Obviously having Josh Berry come into the car, I’m excited about Josh. I like Josh as a person. I like him as a race car driver. He’s one of these guys that his dad didn’t fund his way to the top. This kid has earned his way to the top. That’s why we put him in that 4 car, because that’s a hard seat to fill.
I guess it’s kind of a mandatory reset. It’s not that we’re trying to reset. We’re kind of forced to a certain degree to reset, losing two drivers like that and two veteran drivers.
I’m really happy about the direction we’re going. I feel like we’re going to have four really good drivers next year that are going to work well together I feel like and are going to bring some new energy to the shop.
Q. You’re awfully subdued up there. I’ve seen some of your celebrations. What’s this thing going to be like tonight with Cole and celebrating this championship?
TONY STEWART: I just told him I didn’t care how much trouble they got in tonight, just make sure we had a phone number for a responsible adult to get him out of jail if that’s where they end up.
After watching last night, I didn’t know what direction the media center was going to be in tonight. I didn’t know if you were all doing Tequila shots up here with each other or what.
I am proud of those guys. I am not going to be a part of the late-night festivities. I’ve got to catch my breath a little bit. It’s been a long season on many fronts.
I’m just proud to spend the time with those guys tonight up there and see their accomplishments, and really proud of the job they’ve done for our company. Gene being here was huge. And Gene to see that championship is something I’m really excited about. It’s not about me. It’s about Gene. It’s about Cole. It’s about Joe Custer. It’s about those guys and what they’ve been working towards.
I’m just proud to be a part of it with them.
Q. On Gene being here and the whole organization coming together…
TONY STEWART: I could see it in your eyes. I knew what was coming.
Q. Tonight marked five straight weeks Riley has finished inside the top 4. What have you seen from him over these past couple months as a competitor and how he’s progressed?
TONY STEWART: Kind of the same lines as Cole, just a step or two behind that.
When I talked to Riley after the Vegas race, I said, That’s the hardest one. The first one is always the hardest. After that, it becomes easier because you’ve done it. You know the steps you took to get yourself there.
Riley’s finish to the season has been remarkable. I told him, he came to Victory Lane to congratulate his teammate, and I said, Remember that conversation we had? I said, You will carry momentum now. And he’s carried it all the way to the end of the season. I said, You don’t even realize how much that momentum is going to carry through the off-season to next year.
For Cole to win the championship, for Riley to have the run that he’s had at the end of the season, I couldn’t be more proud of our Xfinity program and the direction and how well these two drivers are doing driving our race cars. So I’m excited to have them back.
Q. There’s been a changing of the guard. We’re looking at a Championship 4 group, Larson is the oldest guy. You were looking at him when he was coming up on dirt. We’ve lost your generation. Harvick is the last one out of that group to go out the door. How do you assess this generation, and how do you keep this generation from being what we saw last night? Do they need to have pep talks from the senior guys, from owners telling them, If I looked at your highlight reel right now, I’d tell you to find another day job. How forceful do you guys have to be, does ownership have to be, because ultimately you’re the guys that do the hiring?
TONY STEWART: Good news, I feel like it’s self-policing from our side as owners because I’m not hiring any of those guys that were pulling those antics last night. I don’t want those guys driving our race cars because if they’re going to crash somebody else, people get tired of that. And when they get tired of it, they start tearing up your race cars.
We’re not the ones driving it and putting everybody in those scenarios, that driver is. We’re going to put drivers in that we feel like have their act together and their composure and know how to do it the right way. And when you see those guys, then those guys get snatched up pretty quick by owners because we are all paying attention to what is going on in the Truck Series.
But as much as they can make a name for themselves in a positive way, they also have the ability to make a name for themselves in a negative way and make it to where we’re not interested in looking at them anymore. So it gives you time to focus on the other drivers that you think have potential.
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