Posted: Wednesday February 15, 2006 4:59PM; Updated: Wednesday February 15, 2006 4:59PM
Coincidentally, the Gibbses would find themselves in need of another crew chief, having just added a second car to team with Labonte's No. 18 Pontiac. Tapped to race alongside the veteran driver was Stewart, then a cocksure 27-year-old open-wheel driver from Indiana who traded stardom in the floundering Indy Racing League for a chance at immortality racing stock cars.
Pairing a rookie driver with a rookie crew chief could have been disastrous for the Gibbs team, but Stewart and Zipadelli's instant chemistry had team higher-ups feeling confident in their gamble.
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The ease with which Stewart and Zipadelli communicate with each other is especially valuable during routine troubleshooting for the No. 20 car, no matter how blunt the assessment.
"If he's upset with the race car, he can pretty much say, 'This car's a hunk of junk,' " Zipadelli says. "And he's used a lot of other words. But if I think he's shown up [to the track] with a hair across his butt, I can pretty much tell him ..." Zipadelli pauses a beat to consider the thought, smiles, then cleans up the language " ... to get in the game."
The bond between the two men has strengthened over time, with the 38-year-old Zipadelli often playing older brother to the 34-year-old Stewart. Others have compared their relationship to a marriage, an analogy with which Stewart is not at all uncomfortable.
"We had that small learning curve of when I say it [the car] is a little tight, he needed to know how much 'a little' is or 'a lot' is," says Stewart. "Once we got through that part, now I can start a sentence, he can finish it. A lot of times, he can start a sentence, I can finish it. We just know each other that well."
But even the strongest marriages aren't immune to strife, "and we've gone through some things that marriages don't go through," Zipadelli concedes.
Many racing fans, too, can remember a time in the not-too-distant past when Stewart was more famous for being a hothead than any of his 24 career wins. His anger management issues came to a boil in 2002. The year in which Stewart and the Home Depot team would capture its first Cup championship was marred by Stewart's antics -- so much so that his nickname, "Smoke," became less about his noxious post-race celebrations and more about his in-race blowups. (He had punched a photographer midway through the season and would engage in other contact unbecoming of a teammate.)
Fed up, Joe and J.D. Gibbs called a team meeting. But the Gibbses didn't attend. Neither did Zipadelli, who'd be forced into the uncomfortable role of mediator between Stewart and the rest of his crew. Speculation on whether Stewart would remain with the team, Zipadelli says, filled the Gibbs garage.
But give the crew chief credit for helping to steer Stewart's mental approach.
"Early in my career I went through some things that Tony has kind of gone through and have been able to share some of the things I've learned," says Zipadelli. "He measures himself by how he did that week.
"It's like being an alcoholic. You get your self worth from how you did and that's all you can judge yourself by. I don't want to change Tony Stewart from what he is. God gave him a talent, that passion, that energy to be what he is. What I've tried to get him to realize is that he can have that same passion and fire -- just use it in a positive way."
This Sunday, Stewart will begin his quest to become the first driver to win back-to-back Cup titles since Jeff Gordon in the '97 and '98 seasons. Smoke couldn't imagine taking anyone other than Zippy along for the ride.
"Honestly," says Stewart, "I don't even want to think about it."