"He's been an asshole at times."Stewart barges into the mobile office at the back of the Home Depot hauler where Greg Zipadelli, the only NASCAR crew chief he's ever had, is waiting to debrief him. As we take off over the Phoenix Speedway, Stewart opens a box containing piping-hot Papa John's pizza and takes a is Tony Stewart's 13th year in NASCAR, and at 37 he remains the most magnetic driver in the sport, even if he isn't always the most successful. Over the years, he has thrown his gloves at Kenny Irwin, had a shoving match with Robby Gordon, been accused of assaulting a fan in Bristol, Tennessee (but not indicted), knocked the headphones off a track official at a midget race, kicked a reporter's tape recorder (and apologetically replaced it), punched a photographer (and later befriended him), and told off NASCAR officials after they forced him to wear a helmet restraint."Tony represents what made this sport," says Hunter. Recently, Stewart dropped a bombshell when he announced he was leaving his employer, the deep-pocketed Joe Gibbs Racing, to start his own team in 2009.
At a time when the .5 billion industry of NASCAR has corporatized and spawned a generation of technically gifted, clean-cut racers like Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Stewart — or "Smoke," as he's called in the back rooms — is a throwback to racing's older era of bootleggers and brawlers. Haas CNC Racing, a much smaller outfit that has never won a race and whose principal owner, Gene Haas, is serving two years in prison for tax fraud, offered Stewart a free 50 percent stake in its million organization. The new team is called Stewart-Haas Racing, and it's the biggest move of Stewart's career. Stewart will no longer have the well-regarded Zipadelli in his ear or the Home Depot logo decorating everything in his sightline. I got an edge."Of course, the switch raises a delicious question.
I look back on it and I'm like, ' They were stupid.'"Stewart started winning races and made a name for himself as a gutsy, chance-taking competitor.Stewart turns off the big V-8 and sits for a moment in the early-morning stillness. He lets the cats out and opens the fridge, which is empty, save for a six-pack of Schlitz and some canned tangerine wedges marinated in rum.He exhales heavily."Getting home at dawn's pretty depressing," he says. Mementos line the living-room walls: racing trophies, a football autographed by Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, helmets signed by NASCAR buddies like Ryan Newman (who is joining him as a driver at Stewart-Haas Racing) and Kyle Busch, who has scrawled in silver marker, "Tony, I'm coming for you!By the time we land in Indiana, he's relaxed and has become affable and chatty.A beat-up Hummer H2 — one of Stewart's 50-plus car collection — is parked beside the tarmac at the Columbus Municipal Airport.