By admin | April 25, 2008
Could Stewart be the biggest free agent ever?
By Richard Allen
Nothing is official. No announcements have been made. Both sides are saying the right things.
“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,” J.D. Gibbs said. “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.”
“Right now we’ve not asked to be released out of our contract,” Tony Stewart said. “They know there are other offers on the table and we’ve said, ‘What if this is the case? And what if this is presented to us? Is there a possibility we could be released from our contract early?’ But we have not asked to be released from our contract.”
Whenever there is this much “Smoke” there is bound to be fire. Do not bet against Tony Stewart driving somewhere other than Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009. There is no certainty of that but it always seems to work out that way when it comes to contracts.
So, then, with the likelihood of Stewart being on the free agent market it raises the question, is he the biggest free agent ever?
Last year, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made himself available and many lauded his signing by Hendrick Motorsports as the biggest free agent signing in NASCAR history. From a marketing standpoint that was probably true. However, from a career accomplishment standpoint Stewart outranks Junior and just about everyone else who has ever been on the open market.
Stewart’s record is impressive. He is the only driver to have won a championship under the old points format and the Chase for the Championship format. He was the 2002 and the 2005 title winner.
He has won 32 Sprint Cup Series races. Those wins have come on restrictor plate tracks, cookie cutter mid-size tracks, short tracks and road courses. He is one of the very few drivers who has a legitimate chance to win every weekend, no matter where the race is being held.
Besides Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s celebrated venture into free agency, other super stars have made famous moves during their careers.
At the end of the 1980 season Darrell Waltrip left the DiGard team to join Junior Johnson.
Waltrip had proven himself to be a race winning driver, but unlike Stewart, he had not yet won a championship at the time of his move.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr. moved a couple of times in the early stages of his career before settling with Richard Childress Racing. Earnhardt, like Stewart, had championship credentials having won the 1980 Cup title. However, Earnhardt was not yet EARNHARDT. He had not become the man of driving and marketing legend as he is mostly remembered today.
In 1984, even Richard Petty became a free agent of sorts when he left Petty Enterprises to drive for Mike Curb. By that time he was entering the waning years of his career.
Petty won races for Curb, including his 200th victory in the 1984 Firecracker 400. However, the vast majority of his wins and championships were behind him.
If indeed Tony Stewart becomes a free agent he will bring some impressive credentials with him while at the same time bringing the potential for many more wins and championships. Perhaps at no other time in NASCAR’s modern history has there been a driver with so much accomplished and still so much to offer who has been in this sort of position. He will be the biggest free agent catch ever for whoever signs him.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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