2008 Ride: No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2008 Primary Sponsor: Home Depot
2008 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2008 Crew Chief: Greg Zipadelli
Stats: 36 races, 1 win, 10 top fives, 16 top 10s, 0 poles, ninth in points.
Best Finish: 1st — Amp Energy 500 at Talladega (October).
High Point: Again, probably the win. 2008 was not Tony Stewart’s greatest year in NASCAR, and even his most biased fan would admit that. Of course, even the win came with its share of controversy, as Regan Smith crossed the finish line first but was penalized for dipping below the yellow line to make the pass.
Off track, the news about his impending foray into the ranks of ownership was unquestionably the high point – albeit bittersweet with leaving such a great team behind.
Low Point: After 10 glorious years, it was sad to see Smoke’s final 10 races with the No. 20 car be such a non-event (aside from a long overdue win). Almost 500 points back in the Chase was not the way it was supposed to finish… so much for the storybook ending with one of the most successful NASCAR teams of all time.
Summary: It was an aggressive start to 2008 by Smoke, who spent Daytona Speedweeks feuding with Kurt Busch after an on-track incident in practice led to some extracurricular activities. However, Busch got the last laugh as while Stewart led heading to the final lap of the Daytona 500, he was undone by the Penske teammates of Busch and Ryan Newman and finished third. Still, it looked like a great beginning to a year that no one expected would end with Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing parting ways.
Four other top 10s followed in the next six races as Smoke produced an unusually solid start to 2008. But he quickly reverted much more to his typical early season form, as picking up just three top 10 finishes in the next 11 races to drop out of title contention. Leaving his old stomping ground of Indianapolis in July, he was already 605 markers back from his surging JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, and remained winless on the season.
But two straight second place finishes at Pocono and Watkins Glen, a 12th place at Michigan and eighth under the lights at Bristol put him back on the right track for that critical Chase berth. In the race before the Chase began, Stewart finished second at Richmond to wrap things up — then ripped his pit crew for losing him the race on pit road. The snarly back-and-forth on the radio with Zippy telling him to cut the crap and that they lost and won as a team highlighted the tensions that had begun when Stewart announced he was leaving the only team he’d ever raced for earlier that summer.
You see, Smoke was never going to get the share of ownership he wanted at Joe Gibbs, so he really had to go it alone to get what he wanted. The announcement of his purchase of Haas CNC Racing, though, just created a very long and drawn out goodbye to a team and a crew chief with whom he has achieved wonderful success. The painful au revoir was only exacerbated by Stewart’s continued failure to pick up a win. As a result, headed into the Chase Smoke was considered an outside favorite at best. An eighth place at Loudon was an OK start, but a horrible three-race spell (Dover 33rd, Kansas 41st, Talladega 34th) put the kibosh on his title aspirations. Four straight top 10s followed but by then it was far too little, far too late.
By the numbers, 2008 was Stewart’s worst season in a decade. He had his lowest number of wins ever, equal lowest number of top fives, and his lowest number of top 10s throughout his accomplished career in Cup. Add in the fewest laps led in a decade, his worst ever average finish (14.9), the fact Smoke finished off the lead lap 11 times… you get the picture. The bottom line is you have to go back to Stewart’s rookie year to find a comparable year. Still, with a ninth place finish and a win, it’s hard to call 2008 a failure except when viewed through the prism of the very high standards of the whole Home Depot Chevy team.
At least Smoke got one last “here, kitty kitty kitty” as he chased down Matt Kenseth in the waning laps of the final race at Homestead. Just for a minute, it looked as if Stewart was going to make it 34 wins in 356 tries for his old team, but it wasn’t to be as Smoke had to pit and finished ninth.
Team Ranking: Third place (of three), a fraction behind Denny Hamlin and some ways back from the “Kyle Busch factor.”
Off Track News: If where Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was going to drive was the off track story of the season last year, then Stewart’s segue into the ranks of ownership was this year’s hot ticket item. The newly formed Stewart-Haas Racing will field two full-time entries in 2009; Stewart will drive the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot car, while Newman will man the No. 39 U.S. Army machine. The organization will run Chevrolets and receive chassis and engine support from Hendrick Motorsports.
At press time, Stewart’s popular radio show for SIRIUS is also rumored to end after two years on the air.
2009 Outlook: Batten down the hatches, people, this one’s going to get a little crazy. The truth is, I’ve no idea how to predict how 2009 will go for Stewart. I’d say making the Chase would be a massive achievement for the sport’s newest driver/owner, but it might just as easily go belly up — and quick. This much we know for sure: after a stunning run of success in the No. 20 car that included two championships, a lowest overall season finish of 11th place (when he missed the Chase in 2006) and 207 top 10 runs, 2009 will be cataclysmically different. How Stewart stacks up to the likes of Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick and (ahem) Michael Waltrip will be fascinating to watch. One thing’s for sure — it won’t be boring.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: B.
2007 Grade: B.
2008 Grade: B.