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Tony Stewart set to be released from Joe Gibbs Racing

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) ó After 10 years and two championships, Tony Stewart appears set to end his relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing to pursue an opportunity to buy his own NASCAR team.

Stewart’s contract with JGR runs through 2009, but the team was expected to announce Wednesday that it will release him from his contract at the end of the season. Team owner Joe Gibbs has been trying to sign Stewart to an extension for almost a year, but the popular driver was slow to commit and eventually decided to explore free agency.

Numerous options were presented to Stewart, including buying the fledgling two-car team of Haas-CNC Racing and driving for other organizations. It gave Stewart options Gibbs couldn’t match, and likely forced the team to grant him his release despite an initial unwillingness to do so.

Mike Arning, a spokesman for Stewart, said an announcement concerning Stewart’s future would be made Wednesday. ESPN.com reported late Tuesday night he would be released from his contract.

“We’re just going to look at everything out there,” Stewart said in April in announcing he’d test the market. “A wise person once told me it doesn’t cost a dime to listen, so right now we’re all ears.”

While exploring his options, Stewart was most intrigued in potential ownership opportunities ó and he’s had an offer on the table since April to rejoin Chevrolet by buying Haas-CNC Racing. By owning a team, Stewart believes he could ensure a spot for himself in NASCAR long after his driving days.

But his contract with JGR stood in the way, and team officials had remained adamant that Stewart would drive the No. 20 through the 2009 season.

“We’ve got Tony signed through ’08 and ’09, and we want to go full bore and win a bunch of races and championships together,” team president J.D. Gibbs said in April. “Our hope is that if you do that, then long term this will be the spot he chooses to retire. But the reality is we only control these next couple of years, and we went through this his last contract negotiations when he had a lot of options out there.

“Our hope is we do our job, and he retires here.”

When it became clear Stewart wanted out, the Gibbs family finally relented and apparently was to sign off on his early departure Wednesday. The team is expected to replace the 37-year-old Stewart, one of NASCAR’s most celebrated drivers, with 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano with Home Depot staying on board as the sponsor.

Stewart is in his 10th season with Gibbs, and he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli have the longest active driver-crew chief pairing. Zipadelli is not expected to leave JGR.

In their time together, they’ve racked up 32 Cup victories, the 1999 rookie of the year title and Cup championships in 2002 and 2005. Stewart has won at least two races a season through his first nine years.

He’s been plagued by horrible luck this season and is so far winless. He had to get out of his car because of illness midway through Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Raceway, a move many viewed as a sure sign Stewart was moving on. In 2005, Stewart got sick in his car but didn’t relinquish the wheel and drove to the victory at Watkins Glen.

Assuming Stewart does buy Haas-CNC, he’ll re-establish his long relationship with Chevrolet. The partnership was partially fractured this season when Gibbs moved to Toyota. General Motors continued to sponsor the sprint cup teams that Stewart also owns.

Gene Haas, owner of the two-car team, began serving a two-year prison sentence for tax evasion in January. The team fields a car this season for Scott Riggs, and a second entry that has been piloted by several drivers. Neither car is in the top 35 in points, and the team was devastated in May by stiff NASCAR penalties for bringing illegal cars to a race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Stewart is expected to gut the organization and bring in his own people, including a second driver. Fellow Indiana native Ryan Newman is among those rumored to be in line to join Stewart’s team next season.

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