An era ends as Stewart races his last race for JGR, more notes

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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- One of the greatest combinations in NASCAR Sprint Cup history will come to an end this weekend when Tony Stewart competes in his final race for Joe Gibbs Racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After the checkered flag falls, Stewart will move on to become owner/driver at Stewart Haas Racing, where he will field a two-car effort that also includes Ryan Newman. Stewart will be replaced in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota by 18-year-old Joey Logano, who, despite rumors that the team is having second thoughts about moving him up to the Cup Series, has been given the seal of approval by Stewart.

"It's something new, and a group of guys that don't normally work together on a Cup car," Stewart said. "That's a team that Gibbs has had to put together to try to get Joey [Logano] some seat time for next year. I'm glad they've done that. They haven't seen the results that they want, but we all know that Joey is better than that, and once he gets in the 20 car, that will remedy itself."

While JGR will move on without Stewart, the driver is in the process of building his team for next season. He believes that recent cutbacks and layoffs on other teams have allowed him to hire some qualified people.

"You hire people off their work ethic and passion," Stewart said. "It's not so much on how they work with me, but rather how they work with each other. They only have to deal with me for a few hours a day; they are the ones that are together from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening.

"The reason we have so many people applying for positions with our new team is because they understand our passion and desire to be successful. Nobody has blinders in the garage area. Everything that has happened they have seen."

Many in the garage think it's going to be unusual to see someone other than Stewart behind the wheel of the No. 20. "Yeah, there are going to be changes like that over the years," Jeff Gordon said. "It's just like Mark Martin not being in the No. 6 car. It always takes some time to adjust to it, but I think that it's exciting to see Joey Logano coming into the sport. He is a great talent. At the same time, I think it's really exciting to see Tony making a big move. I think seeing him in a different car is what's going to really be unique."

Jimmie Johnson's victory, the seventh of the season for the Hendrick Motorsports driver, clinched the 32nd Manufacturers' Cup for Chevrolet in NSCS competition. With the way the American automotive industry is suffering during the economic downturn, at least General Motors has the manufacturer's title to brag about.

Despite struggling this season in Sprint Cup, three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. said he is not returning to IndyCar next season. Hornish is currently 35th in Sprint Cup points.

One day, Hornish's perseverance may pay off, but it's amazing how far his star has fallen. At one time, he was the best American IndyCar driver since Rick Mears and Al Unser, Jr. and appeared certain to become a racing legend. But in NASCAR he can't even beat the likes of Regan Smith, who will likely win the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award over Hornish.

Hey Sam, it's not too late to consider a return to IndyCars, where you were "The Natural." In NASCAR, it's all looked so forced.

It's hard for Danica Patrick to go anywhere unnoticed, but shortly after the start of Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Phoenix, there was Patrick walking behind the pit area with her father, T.J.

The IndyCar driver lives in nearby Scottsdale and is friends with such NASCAR stars as Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. But Patrick's presence at a NASCAR race is sure to set off a flurry of rumors, even though her father was quick to point out the obvious. "She lives here and she's a race fan," T.J. said.

Patrick will be in the final year of her contract with Andretti Green Racing in the IndyCar Series next season. Ironically, she used the threat of jumping to NASCAR as leverage in 2006 when she was in the final year of her contract at Rahal Letterman Racing. That earned her a lucrative deal with AGR.

I spoke with Patrick on pit lane as she was heading over to Stewart's motorhome to watch the rest of the race, and she told me, with a wink of the eye, "You can write whatever you want."

Sources within the IndyCar Series said Patrick will go wherever she can get the biggest check and they would not be surprised if she tried to line up a NASCAR deal. But after watching former Indy Car drivers Hornish Jr. struggle and Dario Franchitti fail in NASCAR, few observers think it would be the wisest move she could make.

She remains a big name in the IndyCar Series despite winning only one time, but once the novelty wore off in NASCAR, Patrick would get lost in the crowd.

And in tough economic times, NASCAR teams are probably going to think twice before attempting to lure any driver without stock car racing experience to their team.

Just because he can't win the Sprint Cup title doesn't mean Jeff Burton is looking to pack it in.

"Any time you are competing, you want to finish as high as possible," Burton said. "There is a tremendous amount of money involved, as well as pride. Second is better than fifth and fifth is better than 10th, so definitely, the better you finish is important."

Burton was mathematically eliminated on Sunday because he is now fourth in points, 269 points out.

Only Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards can win the title, with Johnson leading Edwards by 141 points.

A nine-car pile-up on lap 275 brought out the red flag for 17 minutes, 52 seconds so safety crews could get David Gilliland's Ford off Scott Speed's Toyota.

Gilliland's car landed on top of Speed's car with the rear wheels on the windshield creating an unusual scene on a 1-mile oval.

"It was wild," Gilliland said. "Everybody started checking up there and unfortunately our Ford got involved in it and ended our day. It was one of those chain reaction deals. It looked like somebody got in the back of somebody out there and the rest was just hang on. I got into the back of the 77 [Sam Hornish Jr.] and then Scott Speed got in the back of me pretty hard and his car ended up underneath me."

Speed called it a "Days of Thunder" moment.

"There was a lot of smoke," Speed said. "My spotter said there's no one out there, and I throttled down in the gas. We saw a spin and we all started stopping and that's where it ended. I tried to slow down, closed my eyes, screamed a little bit and it was all over. Honestly, I didn't see much. I got out as quick as possible because David [Gilliland] was still trying to get going and he was burning rubber all over me. Luckily, I don't think anyone got hurt."

While Jimmie Johnson is going to win the Sprint Cup title in a landslide, barring a huge meltdown, there are still two races in NASCAR that are too close to call.

Johnny Benson Jr. takes a three-point lead over Ron Hornaday Jr. into Friday night's season finale in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. After both title contenders crashed in Friday night's race at Phoenix, a fair question to ask was, "Does anyone really want to win this championship?"

Hornaday went on to finish 25th and Benson 26th.

"I'm glad they both pulled a bonehead on the same night," Kevin Harvick said of Hornaday and Benson after wining last Friday night. "That's pretty much what it boils down to. They both had opportunities to put daggers into each other, and it seems like when one does good, the other does bad."

That left both Benson and Hornaday shaking their heads in dismay.

"I'd rather be more points ahead and I'm sure Ronny feels the same way," Benson said. "It was a weird day, a bad day, for both of us. I don't know what the deal is."

Meanwhile,Carl Edwards' recent surge has made the battle for the NASCAR Nationwide Series title "Too close to call."

Edwards won Saturday's Hefty Odor Block 200, which enabled him to chop 35 points off Bowyer's lead after the points leader finished fourth. Bowyer takes a 56-point lead into Saturday night's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"Anything can happen," Edwards said of the impending showdown. "I like Miami. It's a fun race track and our cars run well there. You never know. If we run like we've been running and we perform as well as we have, we can close 56 points without Clint having any trouble."

Bowyer overcame a mid-race collision that left the hood on his Chevrolet at a downward angle. His Richard Childress Racing crew had to repair the damage with duct tape, but even with a car badly in need of a nose job, it was still competitive.

By getting a top-five finish out of a car involved in a crash, Bowyer was buoyant afterwards. "I'm happy," he said. "If someone had come to me and said that at Daytona you would have a 56-point lead going in to the final race of the season, what would you think about that? I would say I'm pumped. I am excited about it and looking forward to the challenge."

When Kurt Busch has his highly-publicized run-in with Maricopa County Sheriffs Deputies in November 2005, it left a blemish on Busch's career and got him an early exit at Roush Fenway Racing. But three years later, Busch believes if you can't beat them, join them.

"To be able to have an honorary deputy badge from Sheriff Joe [Arpaio] a year later ... only in America can that happen," Busch said. "I was happy to see him get re-elected this year and away he goes here again in Maricopa County."

Busch has other reasons to like Phoenix after he started third and finished second in Sunday's race.

"I still enjoy coming here; it's like a second home," said Busch, who grew up in Las Vegas. "I grew up watching races here - watching Alan Kulwicki win his first race, Davey Allison and Earnhardt Sr. -- those are the memories that I really have of Phoenix.

"I just hope that we can, I don't know. I don't know what the answer to that is. Make something up."

-- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. when asked how confident he is on improving his performance next season.

Finally, after another long season that seems to get longer every year, it's the final race of the season. While everybody thinks ending the season in South Florida is filled with sunny days by the pool, it's anything but that. The track is surrounded by palm tree plantations, an Air Force Base and a drainage ditch. The track's original owner, Ralph Sanchez, got the property cheap after Hurricane Andrew devastated the area in 1992.

But, Homestead means the end of the season, and that is what many of us are looking forward to most of all.