That's Racing: Stewart gambles away joy ride

Friday, July 18, 2008 at 2:11am

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: Tony Stewart is walking out on Joe Gibbs Racing where in the past decade he’s won 32 races, two championships and $80 million. Now he’s going to partner with a struggling outfit (Haas CNC Racing) that’s never won a Cup race?

Stewart wants to be an owner/driver – for years a formula for failure.

Why’s he doing it? He says it’s for the “challenge.” If he wants a challenge he should go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The landing would be much easier.

Stewart’s been on a joy ride ever since he’s been in NASCAR. He’s been given the best of cars and surrounded by the best of personnel. He’s been coddled and pampered, on and off the track.

He’s in for a rude awakening. He’s about to discover what life’s like in racing’s real world.

The last successful NASCAR owner/driver was the late Alan Kulwicki, who barely squeezed out a title in 1992. It was difficult then; today increased demands make it virtually impossible.

Imagine the owner of an NFL team insisting on being the head coach through the week and the starting quarterback on Sunday.

Not even Darrell Waltrip could pull it off. Despite being one of the most successful drivers in history as well as an astute businessman, Waltrip flopped miserably when he tried to be both at once.

Darrell has said many times that his decision to become an owner/driver was the biggest mistake of his life.

Oddly, Waltrip says on his FOX Sports Web site he believes Stewart can pull it off.

“I probably failed because I could only think as a driver,” Waltrip writes. “Tony thinks bigger picture. He is an entrepreneur. He has a lot of businesses. Tony doesn’t just drive. There are just some drivers who love a challenge. They like to do things their own way.”

Probably we shouldn’t be surprised by Stewart’s big gamble. He has always been a restless spirit, seldom content, often in the eye of a hurricane. Despite his amazing success he muttered about how unhappy he was in NASCAR, how he disliked its arbitrary rules, intrusive fans and meddlesome media.

While most drivers would crawl on hands and knees over broken glass to drive for Gibbs, Stewart never seemed to appreciate how good he had it. If there wasn’t a problem, he’d create one.

There’s no denying that Stewart is a tremendously talented racer and when he wants to be, he can be one of the most personable, likable athletes I’ve ever been around.

So what’s behind this mid-career crisis? Maybe Tony’s jealous of teammate Kyle Busch’s incredible season. Maybe he’s spoiled. Maybe he’s greedy.

Or maybe he’s simply bored with success; success that came too quick and easy. Like a lot of other young overnight stars who never had to sleep in the truck and survive on baloney sandwiches, Stewart has never had to pay any racing dues. I suspect he’s about to ante up.

Larry Woody is a veteran sportswriter in Nashville and has covered auto racing for almost four decades.

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