Stewart confident about his decision to join new team

JOLIET, Ill. -- Tony Stewart jokingly said on Thursday that he robbed a reporter's piggy bank to get the money to purchase 50 percent of Haas CNC Racing, which beginning next season will be known as Stewart-Haas Racing.

If he took a penny it was too much.

The two-time Sprint Cup champion basically was given 50 percent of the company in exchange for his name, talent, credibility and the sponsorship dollars he brings to the organization.

"It basically led to our decision and where we are today," Stewart, 37, said during the formal announcement of a deal that has been done for almost two months.

General manager Joe Custer said the organization has had everything physically needed to compete at the top level, from Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engines to facilities to equipment.

The one thing it didn't have was a top driver and, with that, the ability to draw top engineers and crew members to the organization.

Stewart, recently valued by Forbes Magazine as NASCAR's fourth-highest paid driver at $19 million, provided that.

"He just doesn't put his name on it," Custer said. "He puts his heart into it. What is Tony Stewart's heart worth? It's nothing that we can put a number on."

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, ranked No. 1 by Forbes at $32 million, believes it was a good move for both parties.

"Haas was in a position where [they said], 'Hey, we've go to get sponsorships. We've got to get some top drivers in here. That's what's going to build our team up to get crew chiefs and engineers and all the rest of the people,'" Gordon said.

"It starts usually with a strong driver. That draws sponsors in, other people's interest in. … For Tony, there are not too many teams out there that are going to offer that kind of ownership."

Stewart wasn't going to get it at Joe Gibbs Racing, which gave him his release earlier this week after Stewart made it clear he would not remain with the organization beyond the final year of his deal in 2009.

"Having 50 percent of this race team is huge," Stewart said.

Stewart's value already has been seen in the drivers he's attracted for the second car. Sources told ESPN.com Penske Racing's Ryan Newman is close to a deal.

Newman declined to comment, saying only that he has talked with team owner Roger Penske and no decision has been made on his future.

Stewart also has brought in top sponsors. Office Depot will be introduced as Stewart's primary sponsor in two weeks at Indianapolis, sources said.

Old Spice also is expected to be on the car. Burger King reportedly could sponsor the second car.

"So how does that affect our organization?" Custer said. "Top to bottom it affects, obviously, our people. How they view coming to the track this week is different. You know, they knew about this press conference and loading on the plane today was a different, exciting feeling at Haas.

"And the owners, Haas Automation and all the folks back in California building machine tools there, it affects them."

Custer said Stewart will make most of the personnel decisions.

"I would say yes, but it is a 50-50 deal," he said. "He has his strengths. He's very good in the garage, and he has a lot of contacts. But we both have to agree. We are trying to give him room. We have a nice balance of two partners."

Custer said the lack of performance of his two cars -- the No. 66 that is 36th in owner points and No. 70 that is 44th -- has been frustrating considering everything at the organization's disposal.

He believes Stewart and whoever the second driver is will turn things around.

"Drivers are absolutely critical," Custer said. "With this new chassis, dealing with it is even more critical. That's what really drove this decision. We want to win."

Confirming he will become a driver/owner was the easy part for Stewart.

Winning races will be the tough part.

The last driver/owner to win in the Cup series was Ricky Rudd at Martinsville in 1998. Former champion Bill Elliott was winless in 228 races as a car owner. Richard Childress, who won six titles with Dale Earnhardt as his driver, was winless in 187 races as an owner.

Since Richard Petty won his final race in 1983 driver/owners have won only 22 races -- out of 787.

The odds are stacked against Stewart, who is taking over a team whose co-owner (Gene Haas) is in jail for tax evasion and two cars that are outside the top 35 in owner points.

But Stewart believes he's the man to do it.

"If we don't [succeed] we're going to go down swinging, that's for sure," he said. "I like challenges. If I didn't like challenges I wouldn't be a part of [owning] three racetracks and four race teams.

"There are no guarantees this is going to be successful. After sitting down and evaluating the potential of this team I wouldn't have made this decision if I didn't think it was going to be successful and great."

Anything Stewart accomplishes wouldn't surprise Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Tony has been crazy always," Earnhardt said. "But man, he makes s--- happen.

"He is taking such a risk, but that's his style. A lot of people may look at that team and say the caliber isn't correct. It doesn't match up. Why would he do that? But he'll make it the way he wants it."

Earnhardt said all of Stewart's other ventures have been successful.

"Everything he does, he gets the right people and he makes them motivated and he's a good guy and fun to be with and fun to work for," he said. "It's pretty cool for him. He's earned it. He put a lot into this deal. He put a lot into this sport and he's earned to do whatever he chooses to do."

Elliott doesn't envy Stewart's position based on his experience as a driver/owner.

"You ain't got time for everything," he said when asked what obstacles Stewart faced. "People. Keeping your mind in the race car and not on ownership.

"I'm sure he brings lots to the table, but I couldn't make it work."

Told Stewart basically was given his half of the team, Elliott laughed and said, "I'd return the favor and give it back."

Custer first approached Stewart in December after it was official JGR was leaving Chevrolet for Toyota. Knowing Stewart had strong ties to General Motors through his open-wheel teams, Custer came up with options.

The two sides finally reached an agreement about two months ago, but couldn't announce it until Stewart got his release from JGR and settled other legal issues.

Stewart said GM was a variable in his decision, but added the manufacturer paid nothing to help get the team despite reports Chevrolet bought out the final year of his deal at JGR.

"GM did not give us money to do this," Stewart said.

Nobody had to.

"It's a win-win for both of them," Gordon said. "I'm anxious to see how it goes for them."

So is Custer. He believes Stewart can go to Daytona in February with a chance to win the Daytona 500, a race he never won in 10 years at Joe Gibbs Racing.

"Going forward, I'm not sure I realize how much this will change the organization," Custer said. "But I'm ready for it."

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