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FOR A moment it had the feel of a going-away party, the way all the important people in Tony Stewart's stock car career gathered around him on Sunday before the Allstate 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Standing near Stewart on pit road were Joe Gibbs (Stewart's car owner and mentor), J.D. Gibbs (the team president) and Greg Zipadelli (Stewart's crew chief of 10 years). This was Stewart's final race with Joe Gibbs Racing at the Brickyard, the track he dreamed of racing on as a kid in nearby Columbus, Ind. So with whom did he huddle before hopping into his car? Executives from Office Depot, naturally, as Stewart beelined past his JGR pals to greet officials from the company that will cosponsor his number 14 Chevy in 2009, when he becomes part owner and driver for newly minted Stewart Haas Racing. So much for sentimental farewell tours.
Clearly the 37-year-old Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, is already focusing on next season, and that has hurt the morale and performance of his current team. "It's been a distraction, and in a situation like this, resentment can build," Zipadelli says. "If you're not 100-percent focused, it's easy to fall behind."
On Sunday, in a race marred by tire-wear issues (box), Stewart finished 23rd behind winner Jimmie Johnson. That left him 10th in the points standings with six races left in NASCAR's regular season and still a good bet to make the 12-man Chase field. But few in the garage expect him to contend for the Cup because of the disunity within his team. "A lot of guys are worried about their futures," says one member, and Stewart's relationship with Zipadelli seems fractured beyond repair. (During one radio exchange in Sunday's race they dropped 14 f-bombs on each other.)
Just why would Stewart choose to leave JGR, the dominant team in NASCAR this season? The answer: The deal with Haas was simply too attractive to pass up. Without investing a nickel, Stewart was given 50% ownership in what had been Haas CNC Racing, which Forbes.com recently valued at $41 million even though Haas's current driver, Scott Riggs, is just 35th in points.
Stewart is worth every penny. While many teams are struggling to secure sponsorship for next year because of the cost (about $20 million per car) and the slumping economy, Stewart has already locked up Office Depot and Old Spice to back him.
It'll help that Stewart Haas essentially will be a satellite team for Hendrick Motorsports, which will supply cars, chassis and engines to the new team. That alliance could make Stewart a threat to win as early as the 2009 Daytona 500, despite the expected growing pains that come with forming a new venture.
"Tony's team will show flashes of brilliance right away," says owner Ray Evernham, whose team struggled for five years after he launched Evernham Motorsports in 2000. "The key is to get good people, which Tony can attract."
Adds a longtime racing friend of Stewart's, "Trust me, Tony will come out of this a winner."
Not only has Stewart bet his future on that; he also may be sacrificing this season for it.
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.