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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Updated: July 10, 3:05 AM ET
With Stewart's departure, Gibbs looks ahead to future

By David Newton
ESPN.com

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- The doors at Joe Gibbs Racing were locked at 11:05 a.m. ET on Wednesday so Tony Stewart could privately tell team members he has been given his release from the organization following this season.

But the doors at JGR aren't being locked for good with the loss of the two-time Sprint Cup champion, who will announce on Thursday in Chicago that he has agreed to become an owner/driver at Haas CNC Racing.

The organization, despite comments that it hoped to sign Stewart to a long-term extension, has been preparing for a while for this moment. Joey Logano acknowledged he is a candidate to replace Stewart in the No. 20 Sprint Cup car next season.

Greg Zipadelli, who has been Stewart's crew chief since he came to JGR in 1999, has a long-term contract and plans to stay.

"I didn't want this to happen, but it did happen,'' team owner Joe Gibbs said after the team meeting that lasted about 30 minutes. "And I'll tell you this, I'm pretty excited about the future.

"We've been working hard on this. We want to go smoothly forward. Hey, it's been a great run for us and a great bunch of years, but we're worried about going forward.''

Gibbs described the mood inside the shop as "pretty good.''

"Good common sense,'' he said.

He would not comment on when JGR began preparing for this moment, but sources inside the garage have said for months that Stewart's return to Chevrolet with Haas CNC Racing -- which will become Stewart Haas Racing -- has been a done deal.

"It's been coming for a long time,'' Logano said. "It may have surprised a lot of people, but a lot knew it was coming.''

Stewart will unveil his new car with Office Depot as the primary sponsor at a news conference in Indianapolis in two weeks, sources said. A deal to sign Penske Racing's Ryan Newman to drive the second car at Haas is also nearly done, sources said.

But Stewart, currently 12th in points, made it clear for the rest of this season his focus is on winning a championship at JGR.

"I cannot thank Joe and J.D. Gibbs enough for the opportunity they gave me and for the support they've given me throughout my entire NASCAR career," Stewart said in a prepared statement. "I've learned so much from them and have a tremendous amount of respect for what they've built.

"I've modeled my USAC and World of Outlaws teams the same way they built their NASCAR team, and I made it a point to find good people to run those programs. If I've learned anything from my time at Joe Gibbs Racing, it's that Joe Gibbs' saying of 'you win with people' is incredibly true.''

Gibbs said Stewart's decision wasn't based on money or a desire to leave Toyota for Chevrolet, which sponsors his USAC and World of Outlaws cars and reportedly will buy out the final year of Stewart's contract at JGR.

"He wants to be an owner,'' Gibbs said.

Besides his race team Stewart also owns Eldora Speedway in Ohio. Sources said he will own 50 percent of Haas.

Asked what Stewart will face as an owner, Gibbs said, "I ain't getting into that. I'm going to lunch.''

Gibbs wasn't out to lunch when he signed Logano. The 18-year-old phenom has a win, a second-place finish and three top-10s in four Nationwide Series starts. But team president J.D. Gibbs and Logano did have lunch together on Wednesday.

There are plans to put Logano into a few Sprint Cup races before the end of the season so he might be prepared to replace Stewart.

"It has been brought up a few times,'' Logano said of him replacing Stewart. "It's a big deal [losing him]. But Joe Gibbs Racing will go on and continue to do well. I don't see the team taking a very big hit.''

Steve DeSouza, the vice president of JGR's Nationwide driver development department, said Logano is ready for Cup.

"Change is inevitable, I don't care what industry you're a part of,'' he said. "At the end of the day we have a good, strong organization. We've seen a lot of people come and go, and this is a significant one, but we'll continue to do well.''

Zipadelli likely would work with Logano, but he's more focused on this season.

"I remain as committed as ever to winning races with Tony and securing our spot in the Chase to contend for a third championship,'' he said.

Stewart will have intense competition from JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch leads the point standings and has a series-high six wins. Hamlin is seventh in points with one win.

Gibbs said he had no inkling that Stewart might leave when he signed Busch during the offseason.

"It's been a great ride with Tony,'' he said. "But our focus is on winning the championship and doing what's right for the 20 team. We feel real good about that.''

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.