It’s official. After weeks of hints and speculation, Tony Stewart will leave Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2008 Sprint Cup Series season. He had another year left on his contract with JGR, but like Casey Mears, NASCAR pacts are made to be broken.
The new Toyotas at JGR were rumored to be the main problem, but Stewart, 37, wanted control of his future above all else. He got it when he reached an agreement with Haas CNC Racing to buy a 50-percent stake in the tenderfoot race team. The team name next year will be Stewart Haas Racing. Equipment and technical support will still come from Hendrick Motorsports, and sponsors and other details are forthcoming.
Stewart will finish the current Sprint Cup season behind the wheel of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. He will drive in one more Nationwide event for JGR, piloting the No. 20 Old Spice Toyota on August 16 at Michigan. His successor in the 20 car(s) will likely be teenage prodigy Joey Logano, who now drives the No. 20 GameStop Camry for JGR in the Nationwide Series. Logano became the youngest winner in series history when he took the checkered flag in June at Kentucky.
Stewart already owns some sprint car teams as well as three racetracks. Gene Haas, the Cup team’s current owner, began serving a two-year jail sentence in January for tax evasion. His wife, Margaret, serves as interim owner. Current Sprint Cup drivers for Haas CNC are Scott Riggs in the No. 66 Chevrolet, with Jason Leffler and Johnny Sauter sharing the No. 70 car. Team general manager Joe Custer owns a piece of the No. 66.
Stewart Haas is expected to be a two-car operation in ’09, with “Smoke” driving one car full time and an unnamed driver in the other. Rumors have fellow Hoosier Ryan Newman, the ’08 Daytona 500 winner for Penske Racing, coming on board when his contract expires after this season.
As a two-time Cup series champion who is widely considered one of the top two or three drivers in NASCAR, Smoke had 32 career wins-never the Daytona 500-at the Cup level before Chicagoland, and was mired in a 32-race winless streak. Teammates Kyle Busch, 23, and Denny Hamlin, 27, have been well ahead of him in the ’08 point standings.
Stewart won the 1997 IndyCar Series championship while running five Busch Series races that same year for JGR. He drove in 22 Busch events in ’98 before entering the Winston Cup Series full time in ’99. After a rookie record three wins in ’99, he has won at least three times in every season but two-winning twice each in 2003 and ’04. His championship seasons came in ’02 and ’05.
One of the more intense competitors in racing history, Tempestuous Tony has had his share of scrapes and scuffles and is always quick with a good quote or candid comment. His oft-cited statement that Dale Earnhardt Inc. would become a museum upon Dale Jr.’s departure is still widely circulated.
The reasons for Stewart’s parting are amicable, if not mutual. He wanted to be an owner-either full- or partial- -which wasn’t an option at JGR. He therefore sought, and obtained, a release after pitches toward an extension by the Gibbs family went unheeded.
The rest, we can say, is future.