By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- From his seat in the bright orange No. 20, Tony Stewart spent a decade driving his way to superstardom while helping Joe Gibbs Racing become one of NASCAR's top teams.
The partnership produced 32 victories, two Cup championships and more than $68 million in winnings. It also survived a flurry of storms created by one of the most tempestuous drivers in NASCAR history.
It was the perfect union, yet it left Stewart, a native of Columbus, Ind., wanting more.
More than he could ever get at Gibbs, where an ownership stake wasn't an option and Stewart was simply the driver. So Stewart secured his release from the organization Wednesday, paving the way for him to purchase his own NASCAR team.
"While this moment is bittersweet, we're parting on good terms and we know that each of us has benefited greatly from the other," team president J.D. Gibbs said in a statement.
The remarkable and often emotional 10-year run will end for Smoke, Zippy and the JGR boys at the end of the season.
Gibbs had hoped to sign Stewart to an extension that would keep the 37-year-old driver in his seat past 2009 and until he retired, but Stewart stalled during contract talks. He wanted to see what else was out there, and given the opportunity to buy majority ownership in fledgling Haas-CNC Racing, Stewart couldn't resist. He scheduled a Thursday news conference at Chicagoland Speedway to discuss his latest venture.
Stewart, who owns several sprint car teams and a trio of race tracks -- including famed Eldora Speedway in Ohio -- will likely model his NASCAR team after the Gibbs organization.
Joe Gibbs has supported "Smoke" unequivocally through a tumultuous 10 years that saw Stewart punch a photographer, engage in run-ins with fellow drivers, fans and the media, and often fall on NASCAR's bad side through his jaw-dropping candor and sharp wit.
He thanked the organization for sticking by him, and teaching him much of what he knows as a businessman.
"I've learned so much from them and have a tremendous amount of respect for what they've built," Stewart said in a statement. "I've modeled my USAC and World of Outlaws teams the same way they built their NASCAR team, and I made it a point to find good people to run those programs.
"If I've learned anything from my time at Joe Gibbs Racing, it's that Joe Gibbs' saying of, 'You win with people,' is incredibly true. They always surrounded me with not just good people, but great people, and the results speak for themselves."
Now Stewart will have to find the same quality people to help him revamp Haas's two-car team. Current owner Gene Haas began serving a two-year prison sentence for tax evasion in January, and the team is not exactly competitive.
Haas currently fields one car for Scott Riggs, and a second entry that's been piloted by several drivers this season. Neither team is inside the top-35 in points, and the organization was devastated by stiff NASCAR penalties in May for bringing illegal cars to Lowe's Motor Speedway.
But Stewart loves a challenge, and this newest one will also secure him a spot in NASCAR long after he quits driving. He's expected to pilot one of the cars, and fellow Indiana native Ryan Newman is in the running for the second seat. Newman has been noncommittal on his future plans, and the Daytona 500 winner is in the final year of his contract with Penske Racing.
Getting to this point, though, meant breaking up a quality partnership.
Stewart joined JGR in a developmental role in 1997 while he was still competing in the IndyCar Series. He ran five races in the Busch Series (now known as the Nationwide Series) for JGR that year, and also won the IRL championship. He expanded his Busch schedule in 1998 to 22 events in preparation of his move to full-time NASCAR in the Cup Series.
His arrival helped JGR expand to two teams, and Stewart made an immediate impact on the Cup Series. He set a rookie record with three victories in 1999 while winning rookie of the year honors. It began a 10-year run with Stewart winning at least two events a season.
Stewart finished seventh or higher in the season standings in all but one season -- 2006 when he failed to make the Chase but still won three of the final 10 races used to determine the champion. He wound up 11th in the standings that season.
Now Gibbs hopes Stewart has one last championship run in him for their organization.
"While our time together is coming to an end, we know there's still a lot of racing left this season and we plan to make the most of it," Gibbs said.
But it's been a rocky season for Stewart, who is stuck in a 32-race winless streak dating back to last August at Watkins Glen. He lost the Daytona 500 on the last lap, the Coca-Cola 600 when his tire went flat while leading late, and several other races because of a bizarre streak of bad luck that has plagued him all season.
He was sick last Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, and after driving the car as high as third, had to climb out of the seat just before the halfway point for relief driver J.J. Yeley.
Yeley brought the car home in 20th, and Stewart is now 12th in the standings, clinging to the final spot in the Chase for the championship field.
Many believed Stewart surrendering the wheel was a sign that he'd reached the end of his JGR run: He got sick in his car at Watkins Glen in 2005, but still won the race.
Stewart's departure means the end of the longest active driver-crew chief relationship in the garage. Greg Zipadelli helped build the No. 20 team around Stewart at inception, and "Zippy" will likely stay behind at JGR to help groom 18-year-old protege Joey Logano into NASCAR's next superstar.
"No matter what, Tony and I will remain close friends," Zipadelli said. "I know when it comes to the No. 20 team, things will obviously be a lot different next year, but I remain as committed as ever this year to winning races with Tony and securing our spot in the Chase to contend for a third championship."
Although Gibbs officials have not said who will replace Stewart in the No. 20, Logano is expected to fill the seat. They had quietly shopped the ride to the top free agents in NASCAR, but Carl Edwards passed on the job in May and JGR officials are now confident Logano is up for the challenge.
He made his NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series in June at Dover following his 18th birthday and finished sixth. He won the pole in Nashville the next week, and became the youngest winner in series history with a victory at Kentucky in just his third start.
Through four starts, Logano has a first, second and sixth-place finish. He's expected to grab Home Depot, which has sponsored Stewart the past 10 years, to keep much of the No. 20 team intact.
Joe Gibbs said the future of that team is bright, even without Stewart.
"The 20 car has been one of the all-time great partnerships in NASCAR for the last decade with the combination of Tony, Zippy, The Home Depot and Joe Gibbs Racing," Gibbs said. "While we are losing one piece of the puzzle, we think the No. 20 team will remain strong for many years to come."
With or without Stewart, JGR is on solid footing. Kyle Busch leads the Cup standings with a series-best six wins this season, while Denny Hamlin is seventh in the standings with one win.
"He was a great competitor, he couldn't stand not running well and he made everyone at JGR want to win just as badly as he did," Hamlin said. "He was a leader for me from the day I started at JGR and then really helped me out when I made the move up to the Cup series. He never sought me out to give me advice, but all I had to do was ask and he would give me as much time as I needed.
"He leaves some big shoes to fill, but that drive to win races and championships at JGR won't change."