Zippy: Stewart's decision to explore his options a distraction for No. 20 team

6/17/2008 - NASCAR
What does the future hold for Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli? Folks, including Zipadelli, want to know. AP Photo/John Raoux

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart know each other so well they normally don't have to ask what the other is thinking. Their relationship is so strong they've talked about walking off into the sunset together following their Sprint Cup careers.

They are, in many respects, no different than an old married couple.

Now they are facing divorce, so to speak.

Stewart's decision to explore his options outside of Joe Gibbs Racing disappoints his crew chief. Zipadelli says it has been a distraction for him and for the rest of the No. 20 team since it became public that Haas CNC Racing and several other organizations were talking about a package that includes ownership.

That Stewart is 11th in points and on the bubble of making the Chase for the Cup, despite having cars good enough to win two or three races, only magnifies the frustration.

"It's not like changing from McDonald's to Burger King,'' Zipadelli said this past weekend at Michigan International Speedway. "It's part of life, friends, family. You know what I mean?

"We've spent a lot of times in the past talking about, 'Hey, we started here together, we're going to finish here together.' But things change. I can't worry about it, but it is hard right now.''

Zipadelli insists he doesn't know what Stewart will decide about his future, which, according to his contract, should include at least another year at JGR. But Zipadelli believes a decision is all but made and sounds like a man resigned to a split.

Joe Gibbs Racing gave me an opportunity 10 years ago and has not ever given me any reason not to want to be here. That's what's disappointing about the situation.

-- Greg Zipadelli

"I truly have tried not to get wrapped up in that, questioning about the unknown in my mind,'' he said. "When that comes, I'll worry about that. Right now, I need to worry about me, my guys, my family and this race team and being in the top 12 in points.''

Should Stewart leave, Zipadelli could go with him and extend the longest crew chief-driver reign in Cup. The long-term extension he signed with JGR last season has outs in it if Stewart is not with the organization.

But Zipadelli doesn't sound like a man seeking to start over as Stewart would be doing to some degree if he joined a fledgling race team such as Haas. He is happy at JGR and enjoys the security the company offers him and his family, which expanded by one this past Wednesday with the birth of his second son and third child.

"Joe Gibbs Racing gave me an opportunity 10 years ago and has not ever given me any reason not to want to be here,'' Zipadelli said. "That's what's disappointing about the situation. I don't think for just racing there's a better place as far as owners.

"I know there's other good, competitive race teams out there. I have a lot of respect for them. … I don't know if ever in 10 years we've ever been told no, we couldn't do something.''

Zipadelli and Stewart were paired in 1999 when JGR convinced Stewart to leave his open-wheel roots for NASCAR. They immediately won three races and took home the rookie of the year title.

They won Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 and have been to Victory Lane 32 times together.

"To me, it's disappointing we're in this situation,'' Zipadelli said of Stewart, who isn't commenting on his situation these days. "Everybody here has done a fantastic job. I don't know. Without getting into a lot of details with things, it's just disappointing we're in the situation we're talking about. That's just the way it is."

Team owner Joe Gibbs has sensed Zipadelli's disappointment.

"Everybody would be,'' he said. "Everybody around him. They've been together 10 years, so there's a natural thing there. You want things to be smooth, to get done.''

Denny Hamlin, like Zipadelli, believes his JGR teammate knows what he's going to do. He also can't imagine Stewart would leave an organization as "strong as we are right now.''

JGR has five Cup wins between Hamlin (one) and Kyle Busch (four). Busch leads the point standings, and Hamlin is sixth.

Stewart, who was fifth at MIS, easily could be up there with them. He has had victory ripped from him three times, including at the Coca-Cola 600, where he blew a tire with a five-second lead over Kasey Kahne with three laps remaining.

"We've certainly run well enough to be top two or three in points,'' Zipadelli said. "Everybody has worked hard. Just some dumb things have happened that have been out of our control.''

Yes, Zipadelli is frustrated. He's reminded he's had opportunities to go other places the past few years and didn't because of his commitment to Stewart and JGR.

That this is a distraction for his crew only adds to his frustration.

"We certainly didn't ask him to look for other opportunities,'' Zipadelli said of Stewart. "That was not anything on our part. But those things happen, and now you've got to deal with it, and let's see how it works out.

"I'm committed to get through this year, and right now, this year and next year is what he has and what we've obligated ourselves to. To me, it's just disappointing we're in this situation.''

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.