HOMESTEAD — Tony Stewart will begin next season as a driver for and proprietor of his own Sprint Cup race team, fulfilling a longtime wish and commencing the next phase of his multifaceted career in motorsports.
But he has spent much of this weekend dealing with the emotions of his last race with the only NASCAR team, crew chief and many crew members he has had since coming to the series from the Indy Racing League in 1999. His 10-year relationship with crew chief Greg Zipadelli at Joe Gibbs Racing is now the longest in NASCAR. Zipadelli said it feels like they are getting a divorce.
"We all just want to do well because it's the last time that we're together," Stewart said after qualifying 13th on Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "It's a hard weekend for all of us. It's been hard on me already. Just dealing with some of the people that we've had to deal with has already made it worse than what it already is, but it seems like we are putting a lot of pressure on ourselves because we want to end on a good note."
Stewart won 33 races and the 2002 and 2005 Cup titles with Gibbs in a tempestuous career in which his behavior sometimes overshadowed his performance. Stewart, 37, accepted a major stake in Haas CNC Racing this summer to create Stewart Haas Racing and hired fellow Hoosier Ryan Newman away from Penske Racing as his second driver. Stewart will be replaced at JGR by rookie Joey Logano, 18.
Dale Jarrett, who raced for JGR for three years, Yates Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing before retiring this year, said he understood what Stewart would feel.
"I know when my time came to leave Robert Yates Racing, whenever we came to last race, (it) brought back a lot of memories," he said. "Not that you question if you're making the right decision, because I think Tony is very comfortable in his decision and making the most of opportunity."
Other high-profile drivers to switch cars: Mark Martin is leaving his partial-schedule deal at Dale Earnhardt Inc. to replace Casey Mears at Hendrick Motorsports; Mears will drive a new fourth car at Richard Childress Racing; Reed Sorenson will leave Chip Ganassi Racing for Gillett Evernham.
No fear: Two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson continued to suggest that he doesn't plan to just ride around leisurely today as he attempts to secure a third straight title. Johnson, who needs only to finish 36th, led the second practice session with a top speed of 167.665 mph. Carl Edwards, who is in second place 141 points behind, was seventh at (166.164). Denny Hamlin led the final round, with Johnson fourth.
On again: Daytona International Speedway president Robin Braig said he was assured by NASCAR officials Saturday that the sanctioning body would require its full contingent of truck series, Nationwide and Sprint Cup drivers to appear at a new version of the annual January "Preseason Thunder" fanfest. The event appeared in jeopardy when NASCAR banned testing at tracks that hold national touring series events. Daytona had built a fan experience for the ticket-buying public around two three-day test sessions to promote the pre-Daytona 500 Speedweeks in February.