Brant James
Wednesday July 9th, 2008

The phone rings in Larry Kemp's office at Eldora Speedway on a busy Friday night. Just a few hours remain before the sprint car race in this rural part of Ohio, but the boss is a thousand miles away at some hulking concrete and steel superspeedway. That doesn't mean, though, the boss isn't present, not when he fills the hours after practice and qualifying in his motor home twiddling like a security guard at the controls of the high-definition cameras that peer down upon the track back in Ohio, upon the money rooms and the concession stands.

Since buying the storied dirt track at the request of 51-year proprietors Earl and Berneice Baltes in 2004, two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart has immersed himself in the business of learning business. There is no detail too small, from the wet spot in Turn 2 to the campground egress, and there is apparently no time like right now to learn it.

"Periodically he'll call and say it looks like this or that," said Kemp, who has run tracks for 25 years and was lured to Eldora when Stewart bought the 120-acre facility. "He keeps his eyes on stuff. He asks questions."

That's exactly how Stewart has approached what he knows is the last epoch of a storied racing career. The ride was blissful and unencumbered by much regard for the future when he won the four USAC championships, including the first "Triple Crown," the 1997 Indy Racing League title, the '99 Sprint Cup rookie of the year, a winner of 32 races at NASCAR's highest level and its champion in '02 and '05. But at 37, approaching what could be the last driver contract of his career, with 27 years holding a wheel behind him, and many years left to live in front, Stewart has learned introspection.

"It's no so much that you think about retiring, but you want to make sure you've got all your affairs in order. I think its peace of mind for me at this stage in my life," Stewart said on Friday at Daytona International Speedway. "When you're in your early 20s and you're on top of your game and winning every week -- this is the only year we haven't been successful, we've been terrible this year -- even the last three or four years we've been working on these projects, and since '01. When you're in your early 20s you think you're Superman and you're going to live forever, and as you get older and wiser, you start realizing you have to plan ahead."

Much like his invitation to purchase Eldora, many of Stewart's outside business ventures have come either as unsolicited pitches or through the constant phone work of his hardened inner circle of managers, including Brett Frood and Cary Agajanian at Motorsports Management International. To this point that had included offers for race teams or real estate or car dealerships. The past few months, since Joe Gibbs Racing announced an interest in re-signing him before his contract expires in '09, those offers have included job offers from Sprint Cup teams. Some have been just for rides. Some have included ownership stakes.

And that is where Stewart's ever-growing interest in business, in finding the next challenge, has merged with the mindset of a man who realizes his racing career is finite.

After months of contemplation and speculation, Stewart was granted his release from the final year of his contract with JGR on Wednesday, likely opening the opportunity to purchase part of a Nextel Cup team, reportedly 50 percent of what is currently known as Haas CNC Racing.

Less than a week before being given his release, Stewart sounded as if he had reached a juncture, if not a decision.

"You look at my Cup career and how many guys in the series at some point or the other switched teams or had switches in the organization, whether it's been crew chiefs or whatever. What I [have] now is the longest crew chief-driver combination in the modern era (with Greg Zipadelli). I've been one organization, one crew chief, but this isn't the first time we've looked at different options, too," said Stewart, who would follow the path of his idol, A.J. Foyt in becoming an owner. "We had this same thing when we talked to [Chip] Ganassi and some other car owners (in '03 before re-signing with Gibbs). I don't know if it's a timing thing where it just seems so much bigger to everybody than what it was the last time around or what the scenario is. Just like anybody in any other business, you always have to know what your options are. You always have to know what's out there. Even when you're on top of your game, you have to know what's available to you, what your options are. To me, I think its part of that learning curve of being a better businessman, knowing that you have to take a step back and see what's out there, what's available."

Stewart said he might not have been in a position to peruse offers and possibly leave Joe Gibbs Racing if the team had not made public its desire to re-sign him with a year still remaining on his contract. With viable offers demanding his attention, he said, he's in a position to possibly leave the team beginning next year.

"It's just like with the race teams and the racetracks and the same thing in '04, when we had all these opportunities come up," he said. "[B]oth times it [has] started because Gibbs has said [it] is going to renegotiate my contract a year early. Well, as soon as they do that, then all of the car owners that are interested start calling. I guess to a certain degree Gibbs brought it on themselves a little bit. I think they were trying to do it for the right reasons, obviously, but at the same time that's what somewhat creates the feeding frenzy. That's what starts the other car owners into the courtship process."

Frood is responsible for sieving the desirable from the seemingly endless available business opportunities; keeping Stewart apprised but not bogged down. Though Stewart leaves the daily running of his 14 ventures -- including a four-team sprint car program begun in '01 and two more race tracks -- to their individual managers, Frood said, he "knows exactly what is going on with all of his and is closely involved in all holistic oversight."

Stewart is considered one of the best of his generation by his peers, but like Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he opted to leave his Dale Earnhardt Inc. last season, says he did not realize the force of his own actions. His open courtship with other teams since this spring has become the source of great speculation and essentially the first domino in a cascade likely to impact a great deal of the series.

Would he drive the fourth car at Richard Childress Racing?

Was he really serious about being interested in the No. 5 Chevrolet to be vacated at Hendrick Motorsports? (No).

Did General Motors opt out of its track sponsorships to help buy Stewart out of Toyota-driving JGR?

If he bought into Haas CNC Racing, would he add a driver? Ryan Newman, maybe? Then who fills Newman's seat at Penske?

Endless, and endless agitating, Stewart said.

"It's very flattering," said Stewart, who is 12th in Sprint Cup driver points and left the No. 20 Toyota early in the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday due to illness. "As your popularity grows, I don't think we as drivers realize it. I think it's easier to see from the outside in than the inside out. Every one of those opportunities that came up -- and there's been opportunities to own car dealerships, be partners in real estate with people, there's been deals that have come along my entire career as a Cup driver -- it's realizing the one that really matter, the ones that are legitimate opportunities and the ones that make sense to you."

That makes the opportunity to purchase an ownership stake in Haas CNC -- a middling two-car Chevrolet operation with full-driver Scott Riggs and a rogue's gallery of part-timers -- an intriguing option. Neither car is in the top 35 in owner points and therefore guaranteed entry into races. And like many in the garage, the team has struggled to find sponsorship. Stewart could likely change all that. ("We rarely have had to put our sales hats on and go beat doors down for deals," Frood said). Stewart was offered upwards of a 50-percent share of the team -- whose owner, Gene Haas, began serving a two-year sentence for tax evasion in January -- and could use it as his connection to NASCAR beyond his retirement.

Somewhere on the camera tower, radio in hand, overlooking sprint car races it likely all came clear.

"I think he wants to have a little bit of his own deal with some ownership in Cup so he can plan his future a little more," Kemp said. "If he says he wants to race three years or five years, he's got more control over it. And he can kind of set his own agenda so he gets a little more free time because he's got his farm down there in Columbus he's been working at."

Stewart said he doesn't have a "bucket list" of wishes jotted on paper anywhere, but enjoying the benefits of a career that began nearly three decades ago on Indiana go-kart tracks has become a priority.

To that end, Eldora has become his personal Zen garden, where riding a tractor is akin to a lawn chair on the beach. The busts of the Baltes he recently had unveiled under the grandstand, but soon to be preserved in a display cabinet, were his idea. So was the notion to spend two hours talking about pets and watching Animal Planet with the Kemps on one of his first visits to their house (on track property) as owner.

"He comes here as Tony Stewart the track owner more than he does Tony Stewart the NASCAR star and the people are really good about not bugging him too much," said Kemp, who has managed various tracks and met Stewart through Agajanian. "He can pretty much walk around and go into the concession stand and say 'hi' to all the kids in there. And he likes to get out and work on the track with us. The tractor is his solitude."

And in a real way, what helped him find his future.

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