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Tony Stewart: Thanks "Smoke" for Ten Great Years!

Kara MartinSenior Analyst INovember 16, 2008
The last chapter of what has become an excellent book in the Joe Gibbs library will quietly close this afternoon as the checkered flag waves in Homestead. It will be Tony Stewart's 356th and final start with JGR.
It has been a decade of decadance for Stewart fans. We saw Tony take the the rookie of the year title in 1999, followed by two championship titles in 2002 and 2005.
There have been 10 poles, 129 top-five finishes, 206 top-tens and 10,225 laps led in 355 career Sprint Cup starts, all of which have come with Joe Gibbs Racing.
The tenure of Stewart and crew chief Greg Zippadelli, the longest active crew chief/driver in the Sprint Cup garage, will also come to a bittersweet end.
When asked how Zipadelli felt about running the last race with Stewart, he replied:
"It's like it's been a marriage and now we're getting a divorce. I spent so much time with him, working with him, working for him over the last 10 years that I don't know what to expect this weekend.  Not to be corny or anything, but it'll be sad.  It'll be disappointing.  I still wish that we were staying together and finishing out our time here at Joe Gibbs Racing, but obviously that's changed.  We're going in different directions now."    
The 2009 season will begin with Tony in his new role as driver and owner of his No. 14 Chevrolet. Zippadelli will stay with JGR and the Home Depot team, taking over the role of 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano's crew chief.
Today the Home Depot car will be adorned with decals celebrating each of Stewart's 33 Sprint Cup wins, sending Tony out behind the wheel of the No. 20 car one last time in blaze of glory. A fitting tribute to the man we have come to know simply as "Smoke."
So to you Tony Stewart, Greg Zipadelli, Joe Gibbs and the entire Home Depot team, thanks for ten great years! Best of luck to all of you in 2009.

The following interviews are quoted from the "Behind the Scenes" Racing News from the Home Depot Racing website, thank you Ed!


Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot machine for Joe Gibbs Racing since 1999:  

What do you expect the Homestead race weekend to be like for you?  

"I've tried to not think about it.  We'll deal with it when we get there and kind of take it as it comes.  This is the longest relationship I've ever had with any car owner, so that's why this situation is so different than anything else I've ever dealt with."  

What will you remember most about your tenure with the No. 20 team, or are there too many to count?  

"It's not that there are too many to count, they're just all special.  Every race that you win and with every accomplishment, there's something about each one of those that's special in their own unique way.  Everything that we've done over the last 10 or 12 years with Joe Gibbs, and Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) and all The Home Depot guys, it's all been big."  

How do you view your role in the overall growth of Joe Gibbs Racing, as it went from a single-car organization until you joined the team to what is now a three-car Sprint Cup team and a two-car NASCAR Nationwide Series team that has won over 100 NASCAR races?  

"It's been slow, because when you're around it like I've been, you're immersed in it and it just kind of grows.  But when you think back to when I first came to Joe Gibbs Racing with a limited Nationwide Series schedule in 1997, it's obviously been a huge change.  But the growth hasn't been because of me.  It's been because of the good people Joe Gibbs has hired."  

What have you learned from Joe Gibbs during your time with Joe Gibbs Racing?  

"I just think learning how Joe is with people.  No matter what position you're in at Joe Gibbs Racing, he cares about everybody, and that shows in the turnover rate of the organization.  It doesn't matter what role you're in there, the way he treats people is why he has such a successful organization, why he's been successful in the NFL, in the NHRA and NASCAR.  He's good to the people that work for him."  

Is there anything Joe Gibbs has brought out in you that maybe you didn't realize before you came to drive for him?  

"I think he's made me a smarter businessman, obviously, being able to spend 12 years with him.  I've been very fortunate and blessed to be surrounded by a guy and drive for a guy that is of the caliber of Joe Gibbs. And not only what he does as a team owner, but who he is as a person and what he means to us as a person."  

In addition to 10 years together with Joe Gibbs Racing, it's been 10 years together with your primary sponsor, The Home Depot.  When you made your debut at Daytona in February 1999, did you think you could make it this long? 

"I just wanted to make it, let alone make it 10 years here.  It makes me proud.  It makes me very, very proud of both my relationship with everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and The Home Depot.  They've been a great company to work for and represent.  It's been a lot of fun.  We've been through a lot of highs and a lot of lows, but at the end of the day, we've had a lot of fun and we've won a lot of races and won two championships.  I think we've had a very successful 10 years."  

How has your role as an owner in the U.S. Auto Club (USAC) and the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series prepared you for becoming a driver/owner next year in Sprint Cup? 

"It's been a little like getting my feet wet for what I'm getting ready to do.  Obviously, there's a lot more people involved and a lot more variables that you have to worry about at the Cup level versus the USAC or World of Outlaws level, but it's still about people and putting them in the right places within the organization.

"I can buy them the best race cars and the best equipment, but you still have to have the right people to build the cars, set up the cars and then drive the cars.  It's definitely helped me get ready for what I'm undertaking as a NASCAR owner."  

Throughout your racing career, when you achieved success at one level, you moved up to the next level, a path that eventually brought you to Sprint Cup.  But once you've won races and championships at the Cup level, where else do you go?  Is becoming a driver/owner the next logical step? 

"I can't say that it's all been calculated steps, but everything has happened at a period where we felt like we could handle what the challenge was.  Whether it's been a new endeavor, a changing endeavor or whatever - it's all come at stages in my life where I felt like I was at the right place to make a change or add something to my plate.  It still goes back to what I learned from Joe Gibbs, and that's surrounding yourself with good people and giving them the authority to do the jobs you hired them to do."  

Do you think this will be your busiest off-season?  

"Oh, I can promise you that.  There's no doubt.  That's not stretching very far.  That's a given that it's going to be busier than it's ever been.  There's not really going to be an off-season.  We're going to work from Monday after Homestead all the way through until we get to Daytona, and then the work's not going to stop after we get to Daytona either.  We're going to be pretty busy for the next year.  We're going to stay really busy."  

There are a handful of drivers who haven't won yet this season who typically win every year, most notably Jeff Gordon.  You were in the same boat until your win at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in October.  How important is it to not have a season where you have zero wins? 

"I think the closer the season is coming to the end, obviously, the more thankful we are for our win at Talladega.  At that time of the season, we wouldn't have predicted we would only have one win on our season.  It definitely puts a lot of emphasis on that particular win now. 

"When you start your rookie season off with three wins and all the way through the first 10 years of your career you've not had a winless season, it makes it that much important to keep that streak alive.

"As competitive as we all are, when you've won every year, you don't want to end the season without having won a race.  I think that almost would be the most devastating part of a season to say you had a season that wasn't successful because of that."  

How big was your win at Talladega? 

"You always want to win.  You want to win every week, and that's the goal of this team every week.  We feel like we should've had three or four of these easily by now.  We're just happy that we got that first one, obviously.  It would've been a big shock to have a shutout season, so at least Talladega has kept us from that."  

Has it been a successful year for you this year? 

"No, definitely not.  We've definitely fallen short of that.  It's because this team - we hold ourselves to a lot higher standards than a lot of the other teams do and we expect more out of ourselves.  We've just fallen short."  

Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot machine for Joe Gibbs Racing since 1999:  

What do you expect the Homestead race weekend to be like for you, since it will be your last race working with Stewart? 

"To be honest, I haven't really thought much about it.  It's another race that we want to go out and win, and that's where my effort lies, but afterward I'm sure I'll think differently.  As hectic as things have been lately with traveling and testing and all the things I've had to do, it's been about trying to just get through these last few weeks. 

For me, obviously, it's going to be disappointing.  Somebody you spend a lot of time with, somebody you've had a lot of success with, somebody you respect - Tony's been really good to me over the years - and it's a big change.  Not a lot of people are fired up over change.  It's like it's been a marriage and now we're getting a divorce.  I spent so much time with him, working with him, working for him over the last 10 years that I don't know what to expect this weekend.  Not to be corny or anything, but it'll be sad.  It'll be disappointing.  I still wish that we were staying together and finishing out our time here at Joe Gibbs Racing, but obviously that's changed.  We're going in different directions now.   

In the times where I've looked at potentially doing something different, I've always found that this is where I need to be.  I feel like this is the path that God really, truly wanted me to take, so I'm going to continue what I started.  I'm content with that.  The unknowns are what you worry more about."  

Is it hard to believe 10 years has passed since you all first came together? 

"Yeah, it is.  As much as you're gone and as much as you travel and as many races as we run, you'd think it would feel like forever, but it's hard to believe a little over 10 years has passed since we started this deal here.  It's been really exciting and we've accomplished a lot of good things and we have nothing to hang our heads about."  

(Zipadelli and Stewart currently have the longest active crew chief/driver tenure in the Sprint Cup garage.  The next crew chief/driver combination with the longest tenure is Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, as the two joined forces for a three-race Sprint Cup schedule in late 2001 before going full-time in 2002. - Ed.) 

J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing: 

Is it hard to believe 10 years has passed since you all first came together? 

"I think it has flown by.  For us, it's really been 12 years, because we started racing with Tony in the Nationwide Series back in 1997.  And he's my age, so it's been neat to kind of grow up together and win some championships together.  Our time together really has gone fast.  And what's amazing is that this team, it's pretty much the same crew, the same crew chief and the same driver.  So, to see it come to an end is bittersweet.  We're all looking toward the future now, but we also appreciate what the past has meant to us."  

How important was Stewart in the overall growth of Joe Gibbs Racing? 

"When we started, it was great the way Bobby (Labonte) kind of took him under his wing and worked with him.  And now Tony, when you watch him, he's been our driving mentor in a lot of ways, which is frightening (laughter).  But he really has done a good job in working with our younger guys in Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch).  That's something we really appreciate.  He's matured a ton over those 10 years."

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