Marketable Stewart has leverage to gets what he wants

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Tony Stewart said Thursday that nothing is broken at Joe Gibbs Racing. Actually, he said it five times in 20 minutes.

In one brief interview session, he also said three times that nothing needs fixing at JGR. Twice he said nothing is wrong, twice he said JGR is a great partner and once he said there isn't a problem in the organization.

To paraphrase "Hamlet": The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.

Stewart has clearly overemphasized a point. Yes, everything is rosy at Gibbs, but what do you really want?

Options, that's what. Class is in session. This is Contract Negotiations 101.

Stewart wants to call his own shots. He wants to secure his future in racing beyond his days as a driver. And he wants a chance to get out of his 2009 commitment to JGR if he feels it's in his best interest.

If needed, Stewart wants to go to Joe Gibbs and say, "I've given you 11 years of my life. I've given you two Cup championships. Now I need you to let me go."

Stewart can be surly at times, as we all know, but he's no dummy. He's a savvy businessman who has surrounded himself with some wise people.

He is one of the most marketable and powerful men in auto racing. That means leverage. It's time to play his hand and put all the cards on the table.

Stewart took notice last season when Dale Earnhardt Jr. used his status as NASCAR's biggest star to find out what riches were available to him.

Driving for a Sprint Cup championship remains an important goal for Stewart at age 36. But equally important is a desire to hold the puppet strings.

Stewart is a racer's racer. Nothing makes him happier than being at a racetrack, any racetrack. It's the reason he bought Eldora Speedway, a way to guarantee he would stay involved in the racing at the management level.

But it isn't enough. Stewart also has an ego to feed, and running a dirt track doesn't do it. Becoming a successful Cup team owner does.

Stewart wants the option of majority ownership. That isn't an option at Gibbs. It's the family business and has moved on to the next generation.

Taking over and running the show is a possibility at Haas/CNC Racing. Team owner Gene Haas is serving a two-year prison sentence for tax evasion, which began in January.

The two-car team has struggled along this season, but where things stand for the long run is unknown.
Bringing Stewart in as a co-owner and driver instantly would bring stability to the operation.

Stewart probably would want the option to buy out Haas at some point, or at least take controlling interest.

Tony has networked his entire career. He has a lot of relationships with people that would serve him well should he decide to become a Cup owner.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For Stewart, it's a golden opportunity to step into an existing team, use the resources at hand and build a successful program.

Earnhardt, who has a close friendship with Stewart, thinks Stewart is in a better position to make it work than almost anyone else in the Cup garage.

"Tony has networked his entire career," Earnhardt said. "He has a lot of relationships with people that would serve him well should he decide to become a Cup owner. I think he could accomplish his goals however he wants to stack it up."

Success at the top in Cup is easier said than done, especially as an owner/driver. Ask Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip or Michael Waltrip.

Stewart knows those horror stories. He knows he won't win as a driver anytime soon at Haas, even with Hendrick Motorsports engines.

But Stewart has other plans. A year ago, he hinted he might quit driving after the 2009 season, so don't look for him to race another 10 years as a team owner.

He might want to run a partial schedule after two or three more years. That would give him the opportunity to race again in the Indy 500, the one race he wants to win more than any other.

And what happens to Joe Gibbs Racing if Stewart leaves after this season? Don't shed any tears for JGR. It's taken only eight races for Stewart to see that the future big dog at Gibbs is Kyle Busch.

The organization has two of the top young drivers in Cup with Busch and Denny Hamlin. And more are coming.

NASCAR's can't-miss teenager, Joey Logano, is under contract with JGR and begins racing in the Nationwide Series when he turns 18 next month. Gibbs also has NASCAR's top diversity candidate in Marc Davis, who turns 18 in June.

J.D. Gibbs wants Stewart to stay through 2009, believing Logano could take over in 2010. Maybe he will. Or Stewart may decide to sign a new deal with JGR if the ownership offer from Haas isn't good enough.

And who knows what other options will come his way now that everyone realizes Stewart is looking around.

He made his play. It's Contract Negotiations 101 and Stewart is giving the lecture.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.