In a move that is designed to secure his long-term future in NASCAR, Tony Stewart has gotten out of his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, effective at the end of the season. "Smoke", as they call him, has had his eye on team ownership for some time, it seems, and he's going to make the move next year to become an owner/driver.
Stewart's buying into Haas/CNC Racing to the tune of a 50 percent share. It's expected that the new team will be called Stewart Haas Racing, with Stewart driving one car and another driver - reportedly Ryan Newman - being brought in for the other. Stewart has apparently lined up some serious sponsors, including Office Depot (their deal with Carl Edwards is up and will apparently not be renewed). Possibly of even greater importance to Stewart will be his return to driving Chevrolet racecars.
Obviously, Stewart is not doing this to win a championship in 2009. He's doing it because of the long-term opportunities that come with team ownership. While Haas/CNC has struggled this year, there's no reason to believe they'll continue to with two big-name drivers. Stewart gives them immediate credibility. So would Newman.
Right now, neither Haas car is regularly qualifying for races, as both sit outside the top 35 in Sprint Cup owner points. Scott Riggs has been driving the 66 car this season, and he hasn't posted any finish higher than 16th. They're 36th in owner points, meaning Riggs has to make races on speed, as only the top 35 in owner points qualify automatically for each race. The other Haas car, number 70, is primarily driven by Johnny Sauter. That one is even worse off in owner points, ranked 44th, and Sauter's best finish is 28th. Jason Leffler, who is having a fine season in the Nationwide Series, will attempt to qualify the 70 for Saturday's race at Chicagoland.
This leads me to my big question.
While I don't expect Stewart or Newman to win championships right away, I do expect them to be in the top 35. That is going to put a lot of pressure on other drivers who are currently gaining automatic entry into the races.
Of those in the lower reaches of the top 35, I see guys like Regan Smith, Michael McDowell, and Reed Sorensen really having to step up their game next season. I don't think Sam Hornish will stay where he is (35th in owner points) for very much longer, though the season-long struggles of Penske Racing in general might hurt him in his effort to climb the standings.
Another team that will be under tremendous pressure will be the Pettys. Kyle Petty's 45 car is having a miserable year, no matter who drives it. They need to find a way to turn that around, because they aren't helping anything in the company by missing races, and they're in danger of doing that because Terry Labonte is running out of champion's provisionals to use.