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Time for Stewart, Joe Gibbs Racing to part company

6/27/2008 - NASCAR

LOUDON, N.H. -- Time to say goodbye. Have a going-away party. Give a toast. Say all the right things.

Ending a long relationship never is easy, but sometimes it's the best option. Joe Gibbs Racing has reached that difficult point.

Face reality. Let Tony Stewart go.

Yes, contractually, JGR can hold him for one more year. Don't do it. Playing hardball isn't worth it.

Get what you can in a buyout of Stewart's contract. For the good of the organization, Stewart has to move on. His heart's not in it.

Stewart wants to leave to become a team owner/driver at Haas/CNC Racing. He's already looking for sponsors that will join him. He's talking to drivers who might want to work for him.

Stewart is leaving. The only question is when, but a lame-duck situation rarely works out well in NASCAR. Look at the 2007 season for Dale Earnhardt Jr. His final year at Dale Earnhardt Inc. was constant turmoil, a miserable experience for everyone on the No. 8 team.

Kyle Busch was the pariah the second half of the 2007 season at Hendrick Motorsports, feuding with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson once he learned he was the odd-man out.

Brian Vickers had similar problems when he was leaving Hendrick at the end of 2006. He wasn't allowed to attend team meetings.

Casey Mears is the latest Hendrick driver in the lame-duck role. Rick Hendrick announced Friday that Mears won't be back in 2008.

"I don't agree completely with the lame-duck thing," Mears said. "I've been through this enough to know it doesn't do anyone any good to run poorly. The transitions are never fun."

Transition is the problem. The focus turns to the future more than the present. The No. 20 Toyota is not the only focus now for Stewart, and everyone involved with the team knows it.

Things haven't gone well so far this year. Stewart is 11th in the standings, still inside the Chase cutoff, but not up to his usual standards. The 2006 season (Stewart ended up 11th) was the only time in his career he finished worse than seventh.

Stewart still could get on a roll this season. He tends to heat up with the weather. Twenty of his 32 career victories have come in the second half of the season, including 12 from June through August.

Stewart is one of the best race car drivers in the world. Never count him out. But a summer hot streak is no reason to keep him around next year.

Neither is a 2008 Cup championship, should it come to pass. Celebrate the moment and part company on a high note.

Stewart has become a distraction at JGR. In some ways, these guys are used to it. Stewart's volatile temper still flares up on a regular basis.

But his bad behavior never got in the way of his on-track racing. That's what makes this situation different.

JGR president J.D. Gibbs said recently that all the speculation surrounding Stewart is a nuisance for everyone involved.

This is more than a nuisance. It's always a bad idea to keep a guy around if he doesn't want to be there.

Drivers try to couch it by saying none of that matters come race day. Don't believe it.

Once a race team knows the driver is on his way out, everything changes. People get concerned about their jobs. "What's going to happen here? Should I start looking elsewhere?"

The effort is there, but the enthusiasm might be lacking. It's already showing for crew chief Greg Zipadelli, recently saying he was "disappointed the team was in this situation."

Zipadelli and Stewart have been together for 10 years. That bond might end. Zippy said he's very happy at JGR, which could mean he plans to stay and work with the new driver of the No. 20 Camry.

The cupboard is far from bare at JGR without Stewart. The organization has NASCAR's most highly touted young driver in Joey Logano.

He won in his third Nationwide Series start two weeks ago, but Logano is only 18. It might be rushing things to ask Logano to replace Stewart next season.

Logano will compete in a few Cup events this fall to see how he handles it. If JGR officials decide Logano isn't ready for Cup, it shouldn't keep them from sending Stewart on his way.

Even if it means putting a journeyman driver in the car for one season until Logano is ready, it's still a better option that having an unhappy Stewart stick around to fulfill his contract commitment.

Jeff Burton believes this type of situation is a reason driver contracts will change in the future.

"The exit clauses will be spelled out better," Burton said. "In the past, if the owner wanted you out, you were out. If the driver wanted out, the owner said, 'You can't leave. I have a contract.' I think we'll see a shift in that soon."

Stewart makes about $8 million a year at JGR, according to Forbes magazine. JGR would want Stewart to buy his way out of the deal.

JGR won't get $8 million. The team might get some type of settlement, but think of the money it will save without him.

In the end, it isn't about money. It's about doing what's best for everyone involved.

The best thing is to shake hands, tell Stewart thanks for the memories and wish him well. The party's over.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.