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Two tough to beat

Stewart and Zipadelli -- longevity and Cup success

Posted: Wednesday February 15, 2006 4:59PM; Updated: Wednesday February 15, 2006 4:59PM
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Gret Zipadelli (left) and Tony Stewart have won two Nextel Cups in the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet.
Gret Zipadelli (left) and Tony Stewart have won two Nextel Cups in the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet.
AP
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Growing up in Columbus, Ind., Tony Stewart dreamed of one day becoming a professional racecar driver, of weaving past a kaleidoscope of cars to the thrill of tens of thousands each weekend.

More than 1,000 miles away, in Berlin, N.H., a young Greg Zipadelli entertained similar ambitions, albeit from a different vantage point. He didn't see himself behind the wheel as much as under one, tinkering with the engine, tightening its bolts and checking the tires.

"I never, ever really wanted or felt the desire to actually race cars," says Zipadelli, the No. 20 Home Depot team crew chief. "When I was little and dreaming about winning the Daytona 500, it was as a crew chief."

In 1999, their paths converged, and they've been living a dream ever since. When the Nextel Cup season begins Sunday at Daytona, it will mark the start of Stewart and Zipadelli's eighth season with the Home Depot team -- far and away the longest active driver-crew chief pairing in the sport.

And Stewart, the reigning series champion, wouldn't have it any other way.

"I can count on one hand the amount of guys I have the relationship like I have with him," he says.

Such longevity is uncommon in stock car racing, where drivers rotate crew chiefs about as often as they do tires. Six of the top eight drivers in last year's Chase for the Championship had retained the same crew chiefs for at least the past two years, but six of the next 10 best finishers in the point standings (11-20) have all made changes for 2006.

Included in that bunch is the sport's favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who after a miserable 18th place finish last year, will welcome back cousin Tony Eury Jr. to the No. 8 Budweiser team. (The two had a shot at being NASCAR's longest driver-crew chief pairing before a falling-out in 2004 led to Eury being reassigned.)

Stewart's and Zipadelli's devotion to each other has resulted in an embarrassment of riches for Joe Gibbs Racing. The two were able to jolt the No. 20 car from an early-season slump to cop a second championship in '06, in the process ripping off a ridiculous five wins in eight races. It also marked the seventh straight season in which Stewart would finish top 10 in the Cup standings, a streak that began in 1999 when he captured rookie of the year honors.

Still, Stewart shrugs off such hard-earned individual accolades, hesitant to give himself much credit for what has been a stellar career thus far.

"I can't imagine being in this series without Zip," Stewart says.

Official credit for the pairing goes to Gibbs team vice president Jimmy Makar. It was seven years ago that Makar, then the crew chief for Bobby Labonte, first interviewed Zipadelli (then a chassis specialist at Roush Racing) for a position as a shock specialist. Makar came out of that meeting thinking Zipadelli would make a better crew chief than shocks man. Makar also knew he'd have trouble convincing team owners Joe and son J.D. Gibbs of the same.

"Me and my dad said, 'You're crazy,' " J.D. Gibbs recalls. But then the father and son sat down with Zipadelli -- and were blown away.

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