Stewart parting with JGR after Sunday the end of something special

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Tears surely will flow in the No. 20 pit stall during Sunday's Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Tony Stewart makes his last lap for Joe Gibbs Racing.

But it won't be the first time they've come from this camp at the 1.5-mile facility in South Florida.

They came in 2002, after Stewart won the first of his two championships. It was a season in which crew chief Greg Zipadelli and other team members never thought they'd make it through that year, much less 10 years, with their driver.

"Let's put it this way: There was a time throughout that year a lot of us didn't believe we would make it," Zipadelli said. "But some of us believed and fought, and things worked out, and we made the right decision as a team and a group."

It wasn't easy. Zipadelli had to rally the team after a handful of crew members left for other jobs because of the constant controversy that surrounded Stewart.

For those who have forgotten, Stewart's oft-aggressive style on the track spilled off the track to the point it became a serious distraction. The most-documented moment came at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the shove of a photographer led to a $10,000 fine and probation by NASCAR and a $50,000 fine and probation from sponsor Home Depot, which stopped just short of severing ties.

It also led NASCAR to order Stewart to seek anger-management help.

"I don't think you guys realize what all went into winning this championship this year and how hard it was," Stewart said after the final race. "Zippy played multiple roles. He wasn't just a great crew chief all year. He had to be a crew chief, a babysitter/best friend and a huge leader."

All that emotion came to a head in tears as Zipadelli and Stewart celebrated at the place where the longest crew chief/driver relationship in the garage will come to an end Sunday night, when Stewart embarks on a new chapter of his life as the driver/owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

"Being able to hug him and talk to him afterwards truly was the moment of my career as far as being with somebody and appreciating somebody, how much effort he put into fixing things and making this right," Zipadelli recalled of that night in 2002.

The No. 20 crew has celebrated a lot of memorable moments since Stewart began his Cup career in 1999. There was the rookie of the year award after he set a series record with three victories and finished fourth in points.

There were the attempts at running the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. There were the titles in 2002 and '05. There was the 2005 victory at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis that the Columbus, Ind., native said he would give up his championship to win.

The list may seem endless, but it will end this weekend.

The moment won't draw much fanfare, with Jimmie Johnson on the verge of becoming the first driver in 30 years to win three straight titles, but it's certainly worth mentioning.

For the most part, Stewart has been so busy putting together his new team, which includes Ryan Newman, that he hasn't had time to stop and reflect. Zipadelli and company have been equally busy, working to get 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano ready to step into the 20.

"I've tried to not think about it," Stewart said. "We'll deal with it when we get there and kind of take it as it comes."

But at some point, most of those that have been with Stewart from the beginning believe emotion will take over.

"For me, obviously, it's going to be disappointing," Zipadelli said. "Tony's been really good to me over the years -- and it's a big change. Not a lot of people are fired up over change.

"It's like it's been a marriage and now we're getting a divorce. I spent so much time with him, working with him, working for him over the last 10 years that I don't know what to expect this weekend."

Flag day
Taped to Stewart, who was taped to the flagpole outside JGR on the Friday before the October race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, was a sign that said, "I'm tired of winning. I'm going to Stewart-Haas Racing."

They have a tradition at JGR of sending employees out this way. It happened to 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte when he moved to Petty Enterprises following the 2005 season. It's happened to other top executives.

Stewart's time just happened to come on Fan Appreciation Day, with thousands of people touring the facility.

"I told them not to bring him outside," J.D. said. "Tony says, 'No, if you are going to do it, do it right.' "

Stewart has been at the center of attention -- and, some might say, controversy -- since he arrived at JGR. J.D. and his father, team owner Joe Gibbs, can't remember the number of times they visited the NASCAR hauler with him.

The elder Gibbs actually detoured to Chicagoland Speedway on the way to vacation last season to end a squabble between Stewart and teammate Denny Hamlin.

"The good thing about Tony, even in times when he's done something where he wished he hadn't, the next day he's always been there enough to say, 'Look, I made a mistake,' " Joe Gibbs said. "Obviously, he's grown a lot, too. He's matured a lot."

Like the crew members, the Gibbses have special Stewart memories. They've seen the side of him many don't: the side that is generous to a fault, helping crew members, neighbors and charitable organizations in financial need.

And while they admit he's changed, the boyish character he displayed when they first met remains the same.

"He was driving around in his RX-7 with his helmet in the back," J.D. said. "He was just a down-to-earth guy, and that really hasn't changed. He's just as happy to get a burger and hang out now as he always was."

Jason Shapiro, Stewart's car chief and a mechanic for the No. 20 team from the beginning, won't ever forget the first time he met Stewart.

"He came to the shop before we went to that first Daytona test," he said. "He looked really young to me. I was like, 'Golly. I wonder if he can drive this thing?' Damn sure, he could."

Shapiro didn't come to appreciate Stewart's temper until their second season, when Stewart got into a shoving match with Robby Gordon because of an incident in practice at Daytona.

"I always knew he got discouraged when we did lousy," he said. "But I never saw the temper flare until then. He was mad and he really voiced his opinion. I was, 'Dang, he really is a firecracker.' "

Shapiro cherished the early days the most, because Stewart -- before he became inundated with sponsor obligations and other side businesses -- spent a lot of time at the shop "actually making parts for these cars."

Crew member Brian Larson, also known as "Shaggy" because of his resemblance to the "Scooby-Doo" character, will miss all the pranks Stewart pulled.

His favorite occurred a couple of years ago, when Stewart put a "sleeper hold" on the new truck driver to break him in. The driver passed out and "we were just hoping he would come back."

One of Stewart's best pranks happened at Homestead during a tire test in his rookie season. The crew had picked up a dead barracuda at the fishing docks, and Stewart decided it would be funny to put the fish under the hood of the rental car used by several Goodyear engineers.

"They drove around for three days wondering why it smelled like fish," Shapiro said. "Tony finally popped the hood and showed them. It was pretty well done. I noticed we weren't asked to do another tire test for a few years."

Here kitty, kitty, kitty
As Stewart closed in on Kevin Harvick with 16 laps remaining in the 2007 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he uttered a phrase over his radio that's been heard more than once in his career.

"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," he said. "Come get you some of this … ''

Zipadelli laughs about those things now.

"Some of those things that you love to hear, like kitty, kitty, kitty, you're not supposed to say until after you pass the guy," he said. "It makes you shake your head and laugh and know that at that day in that time, that's where he was, in the zone. It's fun to be around."

Stewart never has been afraid to say what's on his mind, which often gets him into trouble. He was so mad at Goodyear after this year's first race at Atlanta that he threatened to go home and take "everything that has Goodyears off and put Firestones on and feel a lot safer."

Such comments often leave the jaws of his crew members hanging open.

"You never know what is going to come out of his mouth," Larson said. "It puts us right in the center of it. All the fans ask us and want to know why he said that. We have to answer all the questions he leaves out there for us."

Tire specialist Bill Byrne likes it that Stewart says what other people think but are afraid to say.

"You have to give him a lot of credit for that," he said. "Is it better to bite your tongue sometimes? Yeah, probably. But sometimes things have to be said, and he's not afraid to."

Great owner
Joe Gibbs tried to convince Stewart to remain at JGR when rumors first surfaced that he might leave, not so much because he wanted to keep him as a driver, but because he knows all the hardships of ownership.

"I told him, 'You sure you want to do this?' " Gibbs said with a laugh.

Both Gibbses believe Stewart will be a great owner because, for all his faults, he understands racing and people.

"He really has a good heart you may not see all the time," J.D. said.

Stewart also has a lot of looks. There's the clean-shaven, short-haired look he sports now. There's the long-haired, three-day stubble look he sported earlier this year. There's the skinny Stewart when he stops drinking milkshakes and eating cheeseburgers. There's the heavier Stewart that keeps his belly pinned to the steering wheel of his car.

"All I know is I've taken 10 pounds out of the car [to keep the overall weight with the driver within NASCAR specifications] for about the last four or five years," Shapiro said. "He might look at a diet."

Byrne likes Stewart with three days' worth of beard "because he looks like one of the guys."

J.D. Gibbs?

"I'll take the look that will go the fastest on the track," he said.

All admit it will be strange seeing Stewart, no matter how he's groomed, driving another car next season and the skinny Logano in the No. 20.

"It's like when you broke up with your first girlfriend," Shapiro said. "It was like two months before you finally broke up with her. We've been dealing with this for a while, but eventually the end is going to come. It's too bad it's going to happen.

"There's going to be some wet eyes, you know, but that's part of it. Things don't last forever."

Zipadelli thought they would. He and Stewart often talked about finishing their careers together. He still fights feelings of bitterness that they have to part.

"Not to be corny or anything, but it'll be sad," he said of seeing it all end this weekend. "It'll be disappointing. I still wish that we were staying together and finishing out our time here at Joe Gibbs Racing, but obviously that's changed.

"We're going in different directions now."

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