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Tony Stewart's risk rewarded

| Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012

Four years ago, Tony Stewart gambled that he could do without Joe Gibbs Racing. There were a number of issues between Stewart and JGR, so the breakup was inevitable before he spurned a lucrative contract extension prior to the 2008 Sprint Cup season.

It was hard to imagine Stewart sharing the spotlight with JGR's young, rising stars -- Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Besides, with a potential sponsorship pool more expansive than his ego, the former open-wheel driver easily transitioned from JGR's potential fourth wheel to driver and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.

In the team's third season, Stewart-Haas vaulted over more established teams -- including JGR, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing -- to win the 2011 Cup championship.

In the process, Stewart may have established an intriguing precedent for well-funded, heavily sponsored drivers to seek independence from the powerful, multi-car teams that have dominated NASCAR in the past.

"Obviously, the end of the year last year was -- still almost like a fairy-tale for us and a storybook ending," said Stewart, winner of the 2002 and '05 points championship and a favorite to win the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway next Sunday. "It seemed like the bad luck we had the first 26 (regular season races), we just didn't have it that last 10 weeks."

Stewart dominated the 2011 Chase for the Cup. He piloted the No. 14 Office Depot-sponsored Chevrolet to wins in five of 10 races to dethrone five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. It was Stewart's third title, and his second since the Chase postseason format began in 2004.

Also, Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman put together his best season since an eight-win season in 2003 with Penske Racing. He qualified for the Chase and finished 10th in points.

For months, a handful of other drivers -- including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch -- hinted they might follow Stewart's lead.

However, Earnhardt agreed to seven-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports that keeps him in the No. 88 Chevrolet through the 2017 season. The sport's most popular driver certainly could have attracted the sponsors needed to go solo, but at 37 he wasn't willing to roll the dice as the 40-year-old Stewart had.

Ultimately, Edwards and Busch decided job security was a better option than forming their own teams. Edwards signed a contract extension with Roush Fenway Racing and Busch joined Phoenix Racing this season after splitting with Penske Racing.

"My objective is to keep the eye on 2013's big prize and going in and talking with as many teams as I did this offseason," said Busch, who hasn't taken the option of ownership off the table. "The contracts just didn't align on where they were and where I wanted to be, and so I talked with (Phoenix), made the deal happen."

Busch also had conversations with Michael Waltrip Racing and RCR. He said he'll consider going it alone in 2013 if he can find the sponsorship dollars to support at least a two-car team.

Kahne, who once had sponsors clamoring for a partnership agreement, begins his first season with Hendrick Motorsports after driving for three teams the past four seasons.

"I have four years here that I know it's going to be stable and be competitive and have great people and a great team around me," Kahne said. "To be able to be a part of all that is something that I haven't had."

The number of NASCAR's top drivers who chose job security rather than ownership reflects the risk Stewart took in walking away from JGR to form a team with Gene Haas.

In recent years, only Robby Gordon and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip have dared to go it alone. And they have done so with mixed results.

So far, the cash-strapped, sponsor-starved Gordon hasn't won a Cup race in 250 starts. Waltrip, who will drive the No. 40 Toyota for Hillman Racing in the Daytona 500, has been in Victory Lane twice with David Reutimann.

Stewart was in a much better position to achieve success. Still, despite his title run, Stewart figures it'll take more than one championship season to compare his team to Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing -- teams with a combined 13 Cup titles.

Surprisingly, Stewart made a multitude of changes during the offseason.

"Everybody's programs get better," Stewart said. "It's a matter of just trying to figure who gained the most and where. You try to gain everywhere in every aspect of your program."

Stewart replaced crew chief Darian Grubb with veteran Steve Addington. He brought in former crew chief Greg Zipadelli to tutor Danica Patrick, whom he lured from the IndyCar Series, in the No. 10 GoDaddy.com-sponsored car.

More importantly, Stewart added several new sponsors -- including Quicken Loans, Outback Steakhouse and Aspen Dental.

"When you have great sponsors, you're allowed to get the great people and do the great things," said Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner who finished 10th in the points standings last season. "Without a doubt, the sponsorship is a big part of that."

Now, the expectations are greater for Stewart-Haas Racing.

"Our sport is unique, having our biggest race the first race of the year," Stewart said. "It's exciting to be back, and I'm looking forward to it."

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