Stewart and Zipadelli: Their bond is a passion to win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Zipadelli might as well have been on a white, sandy beach sipping on a cold tropical drink adorned with an umbrella as he sat atop the No. 20 pit box late in Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

His voice was unusually calm as he took his driver, Tony Stewart, through the final laps.

There were no signs of stress on his face.

He didn't seem to have a care in the world.

It was hardly the way things were this time a year ago as Zipadelli headed to Pocono, the scene of this weekend's race. He was so wound up, one would have thought he'd traded personalities with his driver.

That was most evident at New Hampshire the week before Pocono, when Zipadelli yelled over his radio following Stewart's run-in with Ryan Newman.

The shouts sounded as though they were directed at Stewart, who raced the lap-down Newman harder than was necessary given his huge lead in the race and tenuous position in the points.

They weren't.

Stewart just happened to get the brunt of them.

"I don't know that I was upset with Tony," Zipadelli said at the time. "I was upset with the situation. Lap 91, we've got half the field a lap down. [Stuff] happens."

It happened a lot last season. The 37th-place finish dropped Stewart from seventh to 11th in points, one spot out of the top 10 that guaranteed a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

It was the first time since the Chase format was put into place in 2004 that the two-time Cup champion had been out of the top 10 that late in the season. It was the first time he'd been out of the top five with six races before the playoff field was set.

Zipadelli felt responsible.

"Yeah, it's getting to me," he said. "I'm tired. I'm putting in a ton of hours at the shop. The pressure is probably on me more than anybody. Everybody knows Tony Stewart can drive if we give him cars that are capable of winning."

True, Stewart is one of the greatest drivers in the sport today. But he probably wouldn't be where he is today without Zipadelli

Whatever the 40-year-old from Berlin, Conn., is paid, it's not enough.

Zipadelli is more than a crew chief, having to adjust the attitude of his driver almost as much as he does the setup of his car.

But seldom does Zipadelli, otherwise known as Zippy, get rattled as he appeared last season, when Stewart finished one spot out of the Chase. Seldom does he get enough credit for what Stewart does behind the wheel.

That wasn't the case Sunday at Indianapolis. Zipadelli's name was mentioned 10 times by Stewart and team president J.D. Gibbs during the postrace news conference after Stewart won his second consecutive race to move to fifth place in the standings with six races before the Chase is set.

They could have mentioned him another 10. Zipadelli had the car set up so well off the hauler that the tire wear other crew chiefs complained about never became a problem.

"After that first run when we came in he said there wasn't a mark, there wasn't anything wrong with our tires on both of those first two runs," Stewart said.

"That gives you the confidence. I knew if I had to run 100 percent I wasn't going to do something that was going to get us in a bind tire-wear-wise. Any time you can eliminate a variable from your worry list, that's obviously one more thing you can concentrate on that way."

Zippy cares about me as a person and not as a piece of equipment. Having that kind of support from that kind of a person is what gets you through the tough times.

Tony Stewart

Zipadelli's name came up again when Gibbs and Stewart weighed the merits of who was responsible for Stewart's health when he runs in non-NASCAR events such as the July 27 race at Eldora Speedway.

"You got to remember, I'm the person that perfected this thing," Stewart told Gibbs. "It's a lot easier to ask for forgiveness than give permission."

Said Gibbs: "It's Zippy's responsibility. I just work here."

A few minutes later, while explaining how Zipadelli and Gibbs have gotten over their nervousness about such events, Stewart said, "I could have ran last night, but I chose not to do that because I respect these guys and respect what this race means to me."

Quipped Zipadelli: "So it was the race more than us?"

Zipadelli knows how to keep things light. He has been the glue that holds Stewart's team together since 1999 -- making Stewart and Zipadelli the longest driver-crew-chief pairing in the garage -- particularly in frustrating times.

And there were some frustrating times this season before Stewart ended his longest winless streak to start a season at 19 with a victory at Chicagoland.

But through the frustration, Zipadelli kept insisting all was OK, reminding the team that it could have four or five wins were it not for some unfortunate luck.

He defended Stewart after the driver kicked over a garbage can and threw his gloves following a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire.

He always sticks up for Stewart, which should earn him an automatic bonus at the end of the season.

"Zippy cares about me as a person and not as a piece of equipment," Stewart once said. "Having that kind of support from that kind of a person is what gets you through the tough times.

"And when you do have success, that's what makes it more gratifying."

Stewart says Zipadelli is like a big brother, somebody to teach him how to deal with life on and off the track.

Their bond is a passion to win.

They just show it in different ways, Stewart in his moods and Zipadelli in his composure.

Both were calm Sunday, after Stewart won his second consecutive race. That has to send fear down the spines of the competition that now recognizes Stewart as the driver to beat in the Chase.

But as calm as Zipadelli was, don't expect him to relax.

He was back at the shop early Monday morning, getting ready for Pocono.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.