Stewart, Zipadelli concerned with successful Talladega run, not future
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- So often tempestuous, Tony Stewart was the picture of perfect calm Friday as he strolled through the garage seemingly without a care.
And why wouldn't he be at peace? NASCAR's two-time champion is back on top, soaking up the spotlight not for winning races, but as a highly coveted free agent who has triggered a bidding war that could lure him away from Joe Gibbs Racing.
His contract with Gibbs doesn't even expire until after the 2009 season, but Stewart is fielding so many enticing offers, he likely can't keep them all straight. He said he was presented with another option Friday morning, giving him two new offers in the past 24 hours.
"It's very humbling and I feel very honored to be in a position that we have that many organizations interested in me as a driver," Stewart said.
But all the attention on Stewart has put his team under scrutiny, again, as it seeks its first victory at Talladega Superspeedway. Stewart has finished second at the track a maddening six times, and Talladega remains one of just four tracks where the team has not won.
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Crew chief Greg Zipadelli wants nothing more than to cross Talladega off the list on Sunday, but must do so as an entire industry wonders if the team can once again handle another drama created by Stewart.
Zipadelli seemed confident the team he assembled 10 years ago is strong enough and has weathered enough to survive Stewart being pulled by outside interests.
"Dude, we've stuck with him through punched photographers, people being run over -- it is what it is," Zipadelli joked about Stewart's many transgressions. "Here's the deal, it's really simple: Home Depot. The 20 car. Tony Stewart. Greg Zipadelli. We're here 'til 2009.
"We've all had opportunities to go do things. I've had them, he's had them, he obviously has another one that sounds like a great opportunity for himself and his future. Much more than that, I'm not getting caught up in that stuff right now. We've got a great team and a great opportunity to run good here this weekend and try to win a race. And that's what we're here for."
Even so, the attention was squarely on Stewart and a team that could very well disband at the end of this season despite an enormously successful tenure together that has so far racked up 32 victories, championships in 2002 and 2005 and more than $67 million in winnings.
Stewart has at least one known offer, to purchase a portion of Haas CNC Racing. Although it's not clear if driving for that team is part of the equation, the team fields Chevrolets and Stewart is currently in a Toyota for JGR. The conflict of interest would likely mean he'd have to choose between the two, and he admits his heart is with General Motors, which has supported him his entire Cup career and currently funds several of the open-wheel teams he owns.
But the ownership aspect is what's intrigued Stewart, who has slowly built an empire of low-level race teams and tracks, including the famed Eldora Speedway in Ohio. If he ultimately chooses to leave Gibbs, it most likely would be for a deal that includes a stake in the race team.
Car owner Richard Childress, who previously announced he's expanding to a fourth car next season, said he'd be interested in Stewart but doesn't have ownership to offer.
"He's got another year on his contract, and sure, after he finishes out his contract or becomes able, I'd talk to him and see what he has in mind," Childress said.
Stewart isn't revealing what offers he's got in front of him, but indicated more than one involved ownership. He also said he wasn't interested in starting a team from scratch, which is what the late Dale Earnhardt did when he formed DEI while driving for Childress.
Regardless, what seemed like a slam dunk not very long ago -- Stewart had previously stated he'd like to retire with JGR -- is suddenly very much in limbo and the ripple effect could race through the entire garage.
For starters, Zipadelli has spent all but one year of his Cup career with Gibbs and he and Stewart have the longest active-driver crew chief relationship in the garage. But his contract runs longer than Stewart's, although both have clauses that tie them together and could give Zipadelli an out if Stewart leaves.
He said it was way too early to contemplate his own future.
"There's obviously a comfort zone for both of us there," Zipadelli said. "When you look at it that way, it's kind of like getting a divorce or something. You just don't know what's on the other side of the fence. I've been here so long, it's outside of your comfort zone. But I guess nothing lasts forever."
And there's no telling who Gibbs would hire to replace Stewart if he decided to leave. This year's free agent crop is particularly stout, with Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Martin Truex all potentially hitting the market.
Both Edwards and Biffle indicated Friday they are leaning toward staying with Roush Fenway Racing, with Edwards saying he hoped to get an extension done soon while Biffle said he's currently in a holding pattern but "not in a big hurry to get it done."
Newman said he's had no discussions with any outside teams and wasn't sure if his future is with Penske Racing or elsewhere, and DEI holds an option on Truex that could prevent him from testing the market.
So for now, everyone will wait to see what happens with Stewart and his many offers.
"Any team in here would love to have Tony Stewart," points leader Jeff Burton said. "When you have a driver of that talent raise his hand and say, 'You know, I'm willing to look at other opportunities,' he's going to get a lot of interest. People like him with that talent, they don't grow on trees."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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