Tony Stewart, Driver/Owner—Is It the Right Move for Smoke?

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Tony Stewart, Driver/Owner—Is It the Right Move for Smoke?

Like most NASCAR fans, I can’t envision Tony Stewart NOT driving the bright orange No. 20 Home Depot car for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Then again, I couldn’t fathom Mark Martin coming out of “retirement”, leaving Roush, and then completely jumping ship to Chevrolet!

Since 2006, when Martin left Roush a year after his grand retirement tour around the circuit, he has played musical chairs with Chevy-based Sprint Cup teams. He drove for Ginn Racing in 2007, D.E.I. this season after the two teams merged, and recently announced back in July that he would be driving for Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s premier organization, next season. Who would’ve thought?

If that’s not crazy, what about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s highly publicized switch from the Budweiser Chevy at D.E.I. to the National Guard/Mountain Dew Amp Energy Drink Chevy at Hendrick? Much like Stewart in the 20, fans had grown accustomed to seeing Dale Jr. race around the track in that red No. 8 Budweiser hot rod on Sundays.

Then, just this week, all doubts that I ever had about a big name in sports moving on from the team that he’d become an icon with suddenly vanished when Brett Favre was traded from the Green Bay Packers to the New York Jets (the New York Jets?!?).

Now I guess anything is possible, even Smoke parting ways with Gibbs.

Stewart has been a part of Joe Gibbs Racing since 1999, winning two Sprint Cup championships along the way, one in 2002 and the other in 2005.

However, Stewart’s 10-year tenure has not been free of controversy. Incidents such as punching a photographer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and numerous altercations with fellow drivers—including Jeff Gordon and Robby Gordon—have been prevalent throughout his career with Gibbs.

On July 9th, Stewart confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in all of NASCAR—that he would be departing JGR at the end of the season to race for Haas-CNC Racing, which would soon become Stewart-Haas Racing, as he was given half-ownership of the entire organization.

With 50% of Haas-CNC belonging to Stewart, the deal will make him the highest paid driver in the Sprint Cup series.

More recently, his ride for 2009 was unveiled. Stewart will drive the No. 14, same as his lifelong idol A.J. Foyt, and be co-sponsored by Office Depot and Old Spice.

Additionally, it’s all but written in stone that Ryan Newman, who is also a native Hoosier, will drive the other car in Stewart-Haas’ two-car operation, which gives the team a duo of top-tier drivers and a good outlook for its inaugural season.

The $64,000 Question is this: Did Tony Stewart make the right move by leaving Joe Gibbs Racing and joining up with Haas-CNC?

Of course he did! He’ll be making tons of money as driver and part owner of his race team, and plus, after 10 tumultuous seasons with Gibbs, it was time for a change…right?

Not necessarily.

The reasons as to why Stewart bolted make perfect sense.

For one, he had driven a General Motors car his entire Cup career until 2008, when Gibbs made the transition from Chevrolet to Toyota. After driving a Pontiac and Chevy for nine seasons, Stewart was less than thrilled to be behind the wheel of a foreign-manufactured machine, especially given the way that the Toyotas performed during their first season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

Who was to say that they would show signs of improvement in their second season? From the time that Gibbs made the manufacturer switch, there were murmurs that Stewart would get out of the final year of his contract with JGR and head to a Chevy squad.

There was great uncertainty regarding which team it would be—Hendrick? Childress? D.E.I.?

Then came Haas-CNC’s offer of part-ownership, and it was all said and done. Stewart’s opportunity to be his own boss, if you will, was the other major reason that the two-time Cup champion went looking for greener pastures. He has accomplished so much as a driver, so why not embark on a new journey as an owner?

The situation also presented Stewart with all kinds of freedom, something that was a lot harder to obtain as one of three talented and ultra-competitive drivers at JGR. 

With that being said, why would it have been in Stewart’s best interest to remain with Gibbs? Let’s just say that the pros outweigh the cons.

Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the elite franchises in all of NASCAR.

No one in a million years would’ve thought that their shift from Chevrolet to Toyota would go this smoothly after Toyota’s nightmare of a maiden voyage in the Sprint Cup, but they have by far exceeded expectations.

Kyle Busch currently has seven wins on the season, and all three of the Gibbs cars are in position to qualify for the Chase.

When the team fielded GM-manufactured cars, JGR took three championships in NASCAR’s top series (Stewart two, Bobby Labonte one). Consequently, their continued success with a different make of machines does not come as that big of a shocker—it’s a winning organization.

On the other end of the spectrum, Haas-CNC, now Stewart-Haas, is unproven.

From a Cup driver’s perspective, it’s always a huge risk branching out and starting your own race team. Just ask Michael Waltrip, who has experienced a disastrous first season-and-a-half at the helm of his Toyota-based franchise. Likewise, Robby Gordon Motorsports has yet to break through and put itself on the map.

Haas-CNC is a race team that has been relatively unsuccessful and struggled to hold on to consistent sponsors over the last few years. There has also been a plethora of different drivers occupying Haas-CNC’s two rides—Scott Riggs, Tony Raines, Johnny Sauter, Jeff Green…the list of "C-listers" seems to go on and on.

Acquiring sponsors suddenly became a lot easier when Stewart, a proven, well-known driver in the sport, signed with Haas.

Another upside to the program is their valued partnership with Hendrick, the super-team in which Haas receives engines from. Keep in mind that Hendrick has won more races that any other Sprint Cup team throughout the last five years.

Granted, there is potential for a bright future at Stewart-Haas Racing. At 37 years of age, Tony Stewart’s window of opportunity is closing, and his best chance to win another championship is with Gibbs.

I cannot see a championship anywhere on the horizon at Stewart-Haas, because in a league as competitive as the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, teams are not born and then winning titles soon thereafter.

The teams that win big are Gibbs, Hendrick, Roush—the already established "mega-teams", kind of like the Yankees and Red Sox in Major League Baseball. Going along with that analogy, Stewart-Haas Racing would be the upstart Tampa Bay Rays.

Stewart’s tenure with JGR has produced eye-popping results. Other than his two championships, he has garnered 32 wins (and counting…), 126 top-five finishes, and two victories at the Brickyard 400.

Crew chief Greg Zipadelli has been with Stewart every step of the way throughout his prosperous career, and together they make one of the most potent driver/crew chief combinations in NASCAR. They have been paired up longer than any active driver-crew chief tandem, and only Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have more wins together than Stewart and Zipadelli.

Being without Zippy next season will have an extremely significant impact on Stewart’s performance, as his crew chief of 10 years announced that he would remain with JGR and work with Joey Logano, the 18-year-old phenom who is replacing Smoke in car 20.

The dynamic duo has yet to score a win in 2008, but has had quite a few slip through their fingers, like at the Coca Cola 600 when Stewart had a tire go down with two laps to go as he was cruising to the win.

Nevertheless, don’t look for Smoke to go winless on the season (he has a great shot at getting that first win of the ’08 campaign this weekend at Watkins Glen, all you Fantasy NASCAR geeks).

And, even though he has not been in contention to win every single race so far this season like his teammate Kyle Busch, Stewart’s car has been one of the most consistent front-runners (seven top-fives, 10 top-tens), and he will in all likelihood make the Chase for the fourth time in the playoff’s five-year existence.

With the kind of success that he has found at JGR, in addition to the success that the team itself has enjoyed over the years, I think that Stewart would be crazy to ditch Gibbs. But, as they always say, money talks, and there’s a lot more money for Stewart in running his own race team than there is in driving for somebody else’s!

Besides being one rich son of a gun, love him or hate him, Stewart is truly one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR’s most elite series, and if anybody can pull through and turn heads with an unfamiliar, unsung organization, he would be just the guy to do it.

Will he turn heads to the point where analysts are comparing his run with his new team to Kyle Busch’s this season or Jimmie Johnson’s the last couple of seasons?

My answer to that is a definitive "no".

 

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