HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Tony Stewart has never been good at hiding his emotions. Yet as he closed in on his final ride with Joe Gibbs Racing, the two-time series champion was playing it close to the vest.
Stewart was low-key at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he declined an opportunity to reflect on a successful decade with Gibbs and the No. 20 team.
“Everything. All 10 years. All 10 years stand out to me,” was all he offered.
His subdued mood was understandable: Stewart is leaving Gibbs after Sunday’s season finale to run his own team, a venture that was too good to pass up but meant leaving an organization he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli built into a NASCAR powerhouse.
“This is the longest relationship I’ve ever had with any car owner,” Stewart said in a team release earlier this week, “so that’s why this situation is so different than anything else I’ve ever dealt with.”
“Smoke” and “Zippy” are also the longest active driver-crew chief pairing in NASCAR. They partnered for Stewart’s rookie season in 1999 and found instant success, going on to rack up 33 wins and two championships while helping Gibbs position the organization among the NASCAR elite.
During preseason testing at Daytona, when Stewart was still contemplating a contract extension with JGR, he said he couldn’t imagine a scenario where he and Zipadelli would not be working together. But when Stewart chose to leave, Zipadelli opted to remain at Gibbs and will team with 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano next season.
Zipadelli isn’t sure how he’ll feel after the final race with Stewart.
“I guess I’m just numb to it. It’s not what I expected to happen a year ago. But it’s the path that we’re headed,” Zipadelli said. “Ten years. For me, it’s starting over. For him, it’s starting over. There were a lot of days over the years where I was frustrated and stressed out and burned out. But if he said ‘Let’s continue this and sign a new deal,’ I wouldn’t think twice about staying with him.”
The two have weathered their share of storms over the year, most of them Stewart-inflicted. The temperamental driver has had numerous run-ins with other drivers, fans, media and NASCAR that at times threatened to destroy the team.
But the organization always stood behind him, and Zipadelli believes Stewart has grown tremendously from every experience.
“I think he’s certainly way more mature, way more understanding of what it is to be a team instead of I. And when he first came here, it wasn’t that way,” Zipadelli said. “And there was a good two to three years that some things were just pretty stupid. But you knew all along, he didn’t do things — in my heart I believe this — he didn’t do those things to be destructive or hurt people.
“It was just his way of dealing with things, and it was the wrong way.”
Although Stewart declined to look back on the highlights, Zipadelli rattled off their meaningful accomplishments. The championships, two wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and their first Cup win at Richmond in 1999 top his list.
“We both did our job over the years,” he said. “It was great. I appreciated it, but it’s just not what we’re going to be doing anymore.”
NERVOUS NELLIE: Team owner Rick Hendrick has already won seven Cup championships, so you might think that he would be immune to the pressure of a title chase.
You would be wrong.
Even with Jimmie Johnson needing only to finish 36th or better on Sunday to assure Hendrick of a third straight Cup title and his eighth overall, Hendrick is battling a case of nerves.
“You know, I wish I could tell you that I’ve gotten used to it, but I (haven’t),” Hendrick said. “I think I get more nervous, or as nervous as I ever have.”
Johnson virtually wrapped up the title with a dominating victory last week at Phoenix, but Hendrick said it wasn’t an easy day for him.
“That was the longest race that I ever can remember,” the owner said. “You’ve just got so much riding on it. … In the Chase anything can happen. It just brings a lot of pressure and a lot of nervousness, I guess, and I don’t get used to it.”
Hendrick, who also fields Cup cars for four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears, said he expects Sunday to be a stressful day.
“Sunday morning when they line up and start is when I’ll wear out my shoes going back and forth down pit road because I can’t stand still,” he explained. “We think we’ve got a really good shot at closing the deal, but we could have the motor problem like Jeff (Gordon) did (at Phoenix) in the first 10 laps, and then we’re done. So I’ll rest better Sunday night, hopefully.”
PRETTY GOOD YEAR: Despite stumbling in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Kyle Busch says he has not been disappointed by a surprising season that so far has included 21 wins — eight in Cup, 10 in Nationwide and three in trucks.
The 23-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished 14th in the truck series while running only 18 of 25 races. He went into Saturday’s Nationwide event here sixth in that series, despite racing just 29 of the first 34 races. But he goes into Sunday’s Cup finale a disappointing 11th in the standings after dominating the 26-race regular season.
“It’s been a great year and it means a lot to have a year like this and win as many races as we have,” Busch said. “People discounted the Nationwide and the truck wins because (those are) lesser series than what the Cup series is. But there’s Cup guys that are running in those series — ex-Cup guys in the truck series and Cup guys now in the Nationwide series, and upcoming guys that are supposed to be the best of what there is today.”
Maybe Busch’s biggest disappointment is that he won’t get to test a Toyota Formula One car in Japan next week.
“I don’t get to drive the Formula One car anymore,” he said. “I have to go to the Nationwide banquet (next Saturday) and accept my sixth-place awards instead. NASCAR took me away from the Formula One car.”
SPARK PLUGS: There have been 12 different winners in the first 35 Cup races this season, but Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart are the only new winners since the 15th race of the year in June. … Biffle leads all drivers with three victories in nine races at the Homestead track. … David Ragan, completing his second full season in Cup, leads the series with 10,395 of 10,459 possible laps completed. Ragan is 13th in the season points.
Auto Racing Writer Mike Harris contributed to this report