Stewart in talks to leave Gibbs
Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs have created one of the most dominant teams on the Sprint Cup circuit with Stewart's No. 20 Toyota. Two titles, two Brickyard 400s, and 32 wins overall highlight a decade that's left them, with Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, fighting for the label of top team in the sport.
Next season, they'll be waging that battle on opposite sides.
Sources tell SI.com that Stewart is working on the final stages of a deal to move from Joe Gibbs Racing to Haas CNC next season. Considering the ramifications of such a move, no one's admitting anything quite yet, as you'd expect. When reached for comment, Haas CNC Racing spokesman Ron Mench claims there's been no communication between Stewart and the organization. Stewart's PR spokesman Mike Arning was noncommittal ("I've heard what you've heard," when asked about Haas CNC) but he reminded SI that Stewart's contract with Gibbs runs through the 2009 season.
"He's there this year and he's there next year," claimed Arning. "And I know for a fact that JGR is interested in retaining Tony for '10 and beyond. They'd like him to retire at Joe Gibbs Racing. As Tony's said many times, 'Nothing's broke. Why change it?'
"Tony's going to have a lot of options in front of him; why wouldn't he? But I don't see [an early out happening] ... everyone is going to live up to the terms of the contract that runs through '09."
However, sources are adamant that not just the talking, but deal-making is already taking place for Stewart to go elsewhere. And, while sometimes a formidable opponent, contracts can be easily bought out, as Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch have shown us in recent years. Both high-profile drivers, McMurray and Busch engaged in preemptive career moves that prompted a lengthy negotiation process to get them out of their deals a year early, allowing them to move to their current teams of Roush and Penske, respectively.
Stewart's contract extension had been a bone of contention long before '08 began; the veteran initially said he'd get a deal done last offseason, and then came to Daytona claiming he wouldn't work on it until the middle of this year. Instead, that extension will apparently be spurned for Stewart's return from Toyota to American-based General Motors, the only manufacturer he's driven for in his career until Gibbs made the switch prior to this season.
As with Dale Earnhardt Jr. a year earlier, Rick Hendrick is again playing a part in this deal. According to sources, Stewart will be given partial ownership in the Haas CNC program, which gets engines and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports.
Stewart will likely assume the helm of either the No. 66 or No. 70 cars currently driven by Scott Riggs and a hodgepodge of others (Jeremy Mayfield left the No. 70 team prior to Phoenix).
At first glance, the change is a head-scratcher; Haas CNC is an organization that's struggled at the Cup level, never finishing the season in the top 25 in owner points. Currently, its No. 66 car is 28th, with the No. 70 program outside the top 35 and forced to qualify on speed at Talladega. But when you take a deeper look into Stewart's career, you understand why such a move makes sense. In fact, it parallels a similar one made by Stewart's media nemesis but similar say-it-like-it-is personality, former champion and current FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip.