- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — If winning really and truly is the most important thing to Tony Stewart, then he will be hard pressed to find an acceptable reason to leave Joe Gibbs Racing.

But his decision to test the free agent market is based on so much more than wins and losses, and that’s why Stewart might walk away from a team that has established itself as the best in NASCAR.

The two-time NASCAR champion embarked on a whirlwind media tour to explain his decision, joking at one point he had talked more with reporters at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend than he had spoken to his own mother over the past two years.

He has won 32 races and a pair of championships with crew chief Greg Zipadelli by his side and car owner Joe Gibbs staunchly in his corner — no matter the drama and distractions.

Even Stewart, who was humble and humorous during media availability last weekend, was adamant there’s no compelling reason to leave JGR when his contract expires at the end of 2009.

“It’s not that we’re looking to leave. There’s nothing wrong,” he said. “Nothing’s broke. Nothing needs to be fixed. Everything is really good where we’re at right now.”

But it’s not so crazy for Stewart to listen to offers, with many dangling team ownership options.

“I think we’re stupid to not look at what’s being offered,” he said. “It doesn’t cost a dime to listen, so we’re definitely interested in some of the offers that have come across. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen or heard about offers like this. It’s something that I feel like, to be right to ourselves, we have to take the opportunity to at least explore those options and listen to what everybody has to say.”

Fair enough.

Now whether he actually takes one of the offers — which could make him NASCAR’s highest-paid driver and give him a guaranteed role in the industry long after he hangs up his helmet — remains to be seen. But the decision could come down to more than just winning.

Stewart has been smart with his money and has enough tucked away to retire today and still maintain his current lifestyle. But he has also built a small empire, collecting a handful of race tracks and fielding cars for four different drivers at Tony Stewart Racing.

He also has his own public relations firm in True Speed Communications, plus other business interests. Running all that requires money, and by exploring free agency, Stewart is driving up his selling price. No matter where he lands, it’s going to cost Gibbs or any other team a ton of cash to sign him — certainly enough for Stewart to support his diverse business portfolio for a long time coming.

Then comes the ownership aspect. Being in charge appeals to him, and running a race team gives Stewart a challenge away from his own race car.

“I never thought [ownership] would even be an option, but I have to admit — that is something that has been intriguing about this so far is the possibility,” he said. “I enjoy the challenge of trying to help a part of something that grows, and we’ve been a part of that as a driver at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“The idea that there’s that potential, that we might have that opportunity to be a car owner, is something that is very exciting. There’s not just one, but there’s a couple offers out there that have offered that. To me, I don’t remember anybody being in that situation, and to me it’s pretty humbling.”

Taking on that responsibility also would assure Stewart a place in the garage when he decides to stop driving.

Technically, Stewart has two years to decide what he wants to do. He has yet to ask to be released early from his contract, and Gibbs has indicated the team isn’t quite willing to part with Stewart before the end of 2009.

In fact, Gibbs plans to push hard to keep Stewart on his roster. He doesn’t have ownership to offer, at least not in JGR, but he does have winning race cars. At the end of the day, he believes that’s ultimately the most important thing to Stewart.

“It’s been a great ride,” Gibbs said, “and we don’t want it to stop.”

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