Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli: The End of an Era

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer ISeptember 12, 2008

They're the longest running crew chief-and-driver combination in modern day NASCAR. The relationship the two have developed is more of two brothers or an old married couple.

"I don't think either one of us has feelings. If something needs to be said, I can air it and I know that he's not going to go home and take it personally," Zipadelli said. "He may holler back, he may tell me I'm full of (it), he may disagree with it.

"But he will listen to me, he will take it to heart and he will learn from it—and vice versa. We have that relationship; we've been fortunate enough to have that openness and we know it's not about feelings. You check them at the door when you get here."

When they click on all eight cylinders, they're hard to beat and are quick to give each other credit for the success they've had. It's one giant love fest, or should I say hug fest.

However, just like any other couple, they fight, argue and throw sarcasm in each other's faces. And when they do, oh boy, do we all know it. They're not fighting, they say; it's just the passion they share. One way or another, they find a way to put it behind them and move on.

That's what makes Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli a perfect pairing. It's Tony pushing the race car for all it's worth and Zippy pushing Tony, and being the perfect guy to calm him down.

Since 1999, the year they arrived on the circuit, they've won 32 races (including a pair of wins at the Brickyard) and two championships. Zippy has always been the guy in Tony's ear both on and off the race track.

Early in his career, Tony was always finding trouble. He was the bad boy, picking fights and sometimes throwing punches and cameras.

If he wasn't working on the race car, it seemed Zippy was playing therapist. When Tony hit a time in his life when he knew he needed professional help, Zippy never gave up on his driver or searched for a new one.

"Greg is the one person who has probably been the driving force behind us being where we are," Stewart said. "He has been a much larger leader in our race team than I have.

"With all the other people I've ever been associated with in racing, he cares more about me as a person than he does a race car driver. Joe has always had the same approach. That's not an attitude that you see with a lot of car owners or crews.

"You're a piece of property at this level to a lot of people. The one thing about Joe, and especially Zippy, is that they care about me more as Tony Stewart, the human being, than Tony Stewart, the race car driver."

So Tony started attending anger management classes, while in the midst of battling for his first championship in 2002.

By the end of November, not only did Tony complete his anger management classes, he completed the season on top of the points as the 2002 NASCAR champion.

In his post race interview, Tony revealed that Zippy had told him that he "would give up an opportunity to win a [Winston Cup] championship if it helped get my life back on track and get me to a point in my life where I was happy."

Those are the words of an unselfish man who is always looking out for his driver.

But just because Tony went to anger management didn't mean he stopped being the guy that everyone loved. He still continued to speak his mind and rub fenders on the track.

He also kept winning, and in 2005 he and Zippy won their second championship. This time, they said they did it the right way.

"I put the team through a lot of hell ever since I've been with them, but they never gave up on me," Stewart said. "Zippy didn't want to win it the way we did in 2002. It was nice to do it and do it right."

It now appeared that both Zippy and Tony would sign lifetime contracts with Joe Gibbs Racing and never part, just like Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports. There were still plenty of trophies and championships left to win.

Except, for whatever reason, Tony Stewart wasn't happy with the comforts of JGR and decided secretly to look elsewhere for something better. It was one of the worst-kept secrets in the garage and soon rumors were flying of where and what Tony would do next.

In July, after Tony announced his ownership in Stewart-Haas Racing, everyone assumed that just as Tony Eury Jr. did before him, Zippy would follow his driver to another organization.

Instead, Zippy chose loyalty to Joe Gibbs Racing and said he would stay to be involved in the rise of another rookie, Joey Logano.

All good things must come to an end.

In 2009, one of the most successful driver-crew chief combinations and one of the closest will be trying to beat each other.

"My biggest thing is I feel like I'm obligated to Joe Gibbs Racing, because over 10 years ago, they gave me an opportunity to start something that most people in this world only dream of," Zipadelli said. "We didn't have anyone hired to work [on what became the No. 20 team]. We didn't have a trailer, nothing. They hired a driver and asked me to come in and start it."

"I think that's probably been the single hardest part about this," Stewart said. "It's like we've mentioned many times when the topic of Zippy and I come up: it's kind of like a marriage. He's been there both professionally and like a big brother on the personal side. And that relationship is very important to me, not only now but down the road.

"For the last 10 years, I had Greg's leadership and have had the security blanket and the peace of mind of knowing that Zippy's in charge of this. He knows me better than 99 percent of the girlfriends I've ever had in my life, I think."

Here's to Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli having a successful final 10 races in search of one last championship, and for friendly bragging rights in the future.