Well, it's official ... according to sources.
ESPN.com's Marty Smith reported late Tuesday night that Tony Stewart has been granted his release from Joe Gibbs Racing and will become driver and part-owner for Haas/CNC Racing in 2009. The team will be re-named Stewart Haas Racing, and an official announcement is expected Thursday at Chicagoland Speedway.
Stewart will reportedly hold 50 percent stake in the organization, and he could change the car numbers. Currently, Haas/CNC runs the No. 66 and No. 70, two teams currently outside the Top 35 in owner points.
Scott Riggs sits 36th in points, while Johnny Sauter is 44th. Both drivers are expected to be out at the end of the year, with Stewart and Ryan Newman expected to fill those rides.
Given the rumors that have persisted for months -- and the fact that Stewart reached a sponsorship deal with Office Depot last week -- the move isn't a surprise. Stewart expressed a desire to own a Sprint Cup team, and this is his foot in the door. Haas/CNC receives chassis, engines and engineering support from Hendrick Motorsports, so Stewart will have a decent base with which to start.
But I can't help but wonder why Stewart was so eager to leave a team he's been with for 10 years. Stewart has won 32 races for Gibbs, along with the 2002 and 2005 Cup championships, so why bolt now?
Granted, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are having better years, at least on paper. Stewart's luck has been terrible this season; without that, Stewart could be sitting on three or four wins -- including the Daytona 500.
Busch might be carrying the JGR banner with six wins and a 182-point lead in the standings, but Stewart will be a factor before the trophy's handed out at Homestead in November.
It could be the fact that Stewart never completely embraced Gibbs' move to Toyota, after spending his entire NASCAR career driving for General Motors (Pontiac, then Chevrolet). In buying a portion of Haas/CNC, Stewart returns to Chevy, which I would imagine was important to him.
I think in the long run, Stewart will turn that organization around. Stewart has the clout to bring in the sponsors necessary to build those two cars up to a competitive level, and with him and Newman behind the wheels, the on-track performance will improve drastically. I don't see an instant elevation to winning races and contending for titles, but within two or three seasons, Stewart Haas will be in the conversation.
My only question is, can Stewart handle two or so years of running mid-pack?
And what about the No. 20 car? The ride Stewart will leave behind? Rumors have persisted that should Stewart leave, Gibbs would place 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano in the ride. While that's a possibility, I hope the organization looks elsewhere.
Martin Truex Jr. could be on the market if he leaves Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and Casey Mears still hasn't landed a ride since learning he won't be returning to Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. Dario Franchitti is also out there, but he's the longest of long shots. I would rather put someone with extensive Sprint Cup experience in that car before putting Logano in a full-time Cup ride.
Logano is obviously a special talent, having dominated nearly every level he's raced at and picking up his first Nationwide Series win in just his third career start. But Logano's still so young, and has so much to learn. I know he's logged over 4,000 laps in a Cup car in testing, but testing and racing are completely different things.
Besides, do we really wanna risk turning Logano into the next Casey Atwood?