KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Many factors contribute to Tony Stewart’s recent success. Excellent engines, cars, crew, fast pit stops and historic driving talent have propelled the No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) to be the third-highest scoring team in the last five races and have turned it into a real contender to win NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs as the regular season continues with Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
Perhaps the leading factor in the three-time champion’s recent resurgence is the rookie crew chief with the really difficult-to-pronounce last name. Pennsylvanian Mike Bugarewicz (Bug-ARE-avich) was an unknown to most NASCAR fans at the beginning of the season, when SHR announced he would lead the No. 14 team in Stewart’s final season in NASCAR, then prepare for the arrival of Clint Bowyer in 2017.
After 20 races in 2016, the Lehighton, Pennsylvania native has become regarded by many as one of the fastest-rising crew chiefs in the sport as he’s overcome adversity, pulled off strategic feats and earned kudos from the future Hall of Fame driver. Stewart has come to praise the 34-year-old’s wisdom beyond his experience after nearly every race, of late.
“For a guy who’s not been the head guy on the pit box for very long, he’s got a lot of savvy about what’s going on there. I feel like things are kind of gelling around us,” Stewart says of his rookie crew chief known as “Buga.”
While successful, it certainly hasn’t been an easy first year. Stewart sustained a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident, paving the way for Brian Vickers and rookie Ty Dillon to alternate substitution duties in the first quarter of the season. Except for Daytona, Stewart attended each race watching from the spotter stand or pit box getting a first-hand look at the behind-the-scenes action a driver rarely sees when he’s behind the wheel. Stewart made his first appearance April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver that made him eligible for the 2016 Chase. The only way Stewart could make the Chase was by ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points and secure a victory.
The victory seemed the more difficult of the two tasks as the team visited Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway on June 26. Although he ran well in the race, traffic mired the No. 14 midpack and it appeared the team was destined for a disappointing finish. Bugarewicz made a call to pit Stewart with 25 laps remaining, betting a caution would propel Stewart to the lead. A lap later, a caution flew for a spring rubber in turn seven and Stewart moved to the front of the field. Stewart put on a dazzling driving display before losing and regaining the lead in the race’s final lap to earn his 49th career victory. Since Sonoma, the team has finished in the top-five every race except for an 11th-place finish at Indianapolis last weekend, and the July 2 race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway where an accident while running in the top-five with 10 laps remaining relegated Stewart to a 26th-place finish.
The overnight success is really the latest chapter in a lifetime of racing for Bugarewicz. His decision to move to the NASCAR world began in 2005 as he sat on the couch in his college apartment at Penn State University watching the FOX television broadcast of the Atlanta NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race when Carl Edwards edged Jimmie Johnson by .028 of a second in a classic side-by-side finish. At the time, Bugarewicz was a graduate student studying mechanical engineering and doing research for the Navy through Applied Research Laboratories. When he wasn’t at school, he would spend his weekends working on and racing his own Street Stock and Late Model racecars. He also helped a friend compete in the Whelen Modified Series.
The research program at school was rewarding, but Bugarewicz was getting the itch to do more in life. He’d grown up in Lehighton, playing on the high school football, wrestling and track and field teams. He also spent a lot of time watching his father race at Mahoning Valley (Pa.) Speedway and working on cars at his father’s business long before he even owned a driver’s license. Engineering was going to be his career after graduation, but racing was his passion. It was time to do something. The thrilling Atlanta victory not only launched Edwards’ career, it pushed Bugarewicz to embark on his present career path.
Bugarewicz drove to Charlotte in October, knocked on doors at several race shops and passed out resumes in hopes he would get in the sport. A few weeks after returning home, job offers arrived over the phone, and soon after he loaded all his possessions and drove to North Carolina to begin his NASCAR life. He started at Roush Racing in December 2005 and worked on various teams the next few years. Bugarewicz took Rodney Childers’ offer to join him and driver Kevin Harvick as lead race engineer for the new No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet at SHR in 2014. Under Childers’ guidance and Harvick’s abilities, the team dominated the 2014 season, winning five races and capturing the Sprint Cup championship for SHR. The team nearly repeated the feat in 2015, winning three races and finishing second in the Chase. In two years, the team posted top-five finishes in 27 of the 72 points races.
For Bugarewicz, the lessons learned at SHR are about more than just statistics. They include picking the brain of SHR Director of Competition Greg Zipadelli, who owns two championships and 34 wins as a crew chief, while working and watching Childers and Tony Gibson, No. 41 crew chief, as they provide him with the support and guidance to excel in his new role.
“There is no position that has evolved more over the years in NASCAR than the crew chief position,” Bugarewicz said. “When I first started, the crew chief was the expert when it came to anything on the racecar. Today, it is the crew chief’s job to assemble a team of specialized individuals and utilize the information they provide to produce the best product for competition.”
This weekend, the Pennsylvania native would like nothing more than to win Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400. Stewart has two poles, two wins, eight top-three finishes, 12 top-fives, 23 top-10s and has led a total of 183 laps in his 35 career Sprint Cup starts at Pocono. His average start is 13.0, his average finish is 12.6 and he has a lap-completion rate of 96.7 percent.
Bugarewicz certainly would like to win in front of friends and family, but he has his own goals for the “Tricky Triangle.”
“Every week, we are working to run in the top-10, top-five, and racing the guys who are in the Chase who you know are going to be contenders,” he said. “When you show you can do that, it gives you hope.”
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Does it feel good walking into a track knowing you will be competitive?
“It’s a good feeling, I can tell you that. It just was getting cars to feel right. I think that was the biggest thing – just trying to get through the speculation of, ‘Can he do this anymore?’ And, ‘Why is he not competitive?’ When you finally get going and you start running up front with guys who you are used to running with again, then you are getting text messages after the race saying, ‘Hey, I was glad to see you up there with us again.’ That is the stuff that makes you feel like, ‘Hey, we are back where we belong, now.’”
It seems like you are having a lot of fun recently. What is it like to experience that in your final season?
“It’s a heck of a lot better than being frustrated all the time. There are so many cool people we care about in this series and it’s other team owners, it’s team members and crew chiefs and drivers, and we’re just having fun with it and that’s what we said we wanted to do at the start of the year and we wanted to have fun and win a race and we’ve done all that. I don’t think we’re quite done, yet. So, we’re just going to keep having fun and going for it.”
Would you be picking up steam in the recent races had you not won in Sonoma?
“I still think we’d be picking up. You look at how we ran at Pocono until I crashed, and then Michigan the following week, we picked up, and then the weekend off or whatever, and then Sonoma. You know, I don’t think Sonoma necessarily was an indication of why we ran well at New Hampshire, but it gave us a lot of confidence. It gave me a lot of confidence. It gave Mike (Bugarewicz) confidence, really picked up the morale of the team. Everybody was kind of on edge because everybody wants this last year to be good and we want to run well in this last year. So, for Mike and I to get caught up with each other, we’ve really had to work hard at it, and I think he’s done a great job. But I think Sonoma really helped kind of relax everybody and got us in the mode of racing again and not really worrying about what we were looking like out there and why we weren’t performing. But I feel like it started before Sonoma.”
How do you get your car to handle through the three very different corners at Pocono?
“That’s the hard part for the crew chiefs. Normally, you can get two of them right, then you make a change to fix the third and you hurt the other two corners. That seems like it is always the challenge – its tying all three corners together and getting your car to respond to it.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine