Respect for Joe Gibbs pushed Tony Stewart to team ownership

Tony Stewart (Getty Images)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Joe Gibbs couldn’t stay angry at Tony Stewart forever.

In fact, he couldn’t stay angry for very long at all—once he got over the shock of Stewart’s planned departure from Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the 2008 season.

In what remains one of the most surprising decisions in NASCAR racing in the 21st century, Stewart announced in July 2008 that he was leaving JGR to partner with Gene Haas, whose Haas CNC Racing team had been an also-ran since its inception.

We all know the rest of the story. The partnership that formed Stewart-Haas Racing transformed the team into a perennial title contender. Stewart won the Monster Energy Cup Series championship in 2011, winning five times during the Playoff and beating Carl Edwards on a tiebreaker.

Three years later, Kevin Harvick claimed the championship trophy for SHR.

Back in 2008, however, there was little to mitigate the Joe Gibbs’ shock or chagrin when Stewart told the team owner of his future plans.

“It’s because of Joe that I even tried to do something like this and be a car owner,” Stewart said on Friday during a press conference featuring representatives of the Championship 4 teams—Joe Garone (Furniture Row Racing), Walt Czarnecki (Team Penske), Gibbs and Stewart. “I always respected Joe. We’ve got a great relationship obviously, as you can tell.

“I remember the day that he was ready to strangle me, the day I walked in and said I was going to be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing. The moment he stopped trying to strangle me is when I said, ‘I have the opportunity to be like you.’ That’s when he let go of my neck. Kind of hard to argue with that when you say you’re trying to be like one of your heroes.”