July 10, 2008 9:31 pm EDT

Marriage of convenience
By Bob Margolis, Yahoo Sports

Joe Custer and Tony Stewart join forces. (Getty)
JOLIET, Ill. – The partnership between Tony Stewart and Haas/CNC Racing might best be described as a marriage between royalty and a commoner.

The royalty is Stewart, a member of racing's elite family of drivers. As the winner of more than 30 Sprint Cup races and two series championships, his name appears on everyone's list of the best drivers in the history of NASCAR.

The commoner is team owner Gene Haas, who sits in a federal prison serving a 24-month sentence for tax fraud and whose Sprint Cup team has floundered, lacking the funding and personnel to make it competitive.

Each man needed the other – Stewart to get the ownership of a Sprint Cup team he craved, Haas to gain the respectability he needed to leave NASCAR's basement.

With words like "opportunity," "turning point" and "unbelievable day" coming from Stewart, it made it a lot easier to forget what this really is – a marriage of convenience.

Stewart was all smiles Thursday while announcing that he had become a driver and new co-owner of Haas/CNC Racing beginning in 2009. Going forward the new team is to be called Stewart/Haas Racing, because, as Stewart put it, "It looked better on the logo with my name on the top."

Actually, having his name on the logo is the whole reason the deal went down in the first place.

Stewart is the kind of marquee driver that, before now, Haas and general manager Joe Custer had been unable to convince to drive for them. Sure, Haas/CNC is a satellite program of Hendrick Motorsports, which theoretically provides them with the best equipment – engines and chassis out of the same shop that has won the last two Cup championships.

But this never translated into results. Since buying into Cup racing in 2002, Haas has zero wins and just one top-five finish.

"It has been a frustration that our performance isn't at the same level of Hendrick Motorsports over the years," Custer said. "We'd never been able to attract the best people here. With Tony being here, now that will all change."

Custer referred to Stewart as a "franchise player," a phrase he was reluctant to use but used anyway.

But Stewart is more than a franchise player. He is the franchise.

Sponsors will be interested just because of Stewart's presence. (Office Depot is expected to be on Stewart's hood next year.) He's the reason why a top-level crew chief will come on board. And he'll help attract even more driving talent. Ryan Newman already is rumored to be the top candidate to fill the second Stewart/Haas seat.

The decision to go after someone of Stewart's caliber and offer him 50 percent ownership for free, which is believed to be the deal here, wasn't done on a whim.

Late last season, both Haas and Custer realized that the only way their team was to stay viable in NASCAR was to convince someone like Stewart to sign with them.

Despite having the cars and engines from Hendrick, there essentially was nothing of any value for a big-name driver in signing with Haas.

Enter a matchmaker – Chevrolet.

The manufacturer wanted to see Stewart back in a Chevrolet, and Haas needed a big-name driver.

Stewart first was presented with the deal at the end of the 2007 season. He likely filed it away, knowing it always would be there if things didn't pan out with Gibbs and Toyota.

When JGR made the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota at the start of the 2008 season, it didn't sit well with neither Stewart nor his fans.

Chevrolet execs did not hide their unhappiness, either. The split between JGR and Chevrolet, however pleasant and businesslike it appeared on the surface, was an acrimonious one.

"Obviously, GM (General Motors) made a huge push when Joe Gibbs Racing made the announcement that they were going to be switching to Toyota," Stewart said. "Obviously the comments that GM made were very strong about wanting to get me back."

Although Stewart downplays any direct involvement by Chevrolet in his decision to join Haas, it doesn't take much to draw a correlation between the two.

As the 2008 Cup season unfolded, an already unhappy Stewart, who agreed to see where things would go with Toyota, watched as teammate Kyle Busch wrestled away the media spotlight with his brash and arrogant attitude, something Stewart had held the patent for.

Then Busch started winning races.

At that point, the idea of owning his own team, where he could call the shots, started to look a whole lot better.

Stewart approached team owner Joe Gibbs about getting partial ownership in the Gibbs organization, a move that's not unprecedented.

Jeff Gordon had been in a similar situation to Stewart in 2000 when longtime Gordon crew chief Ray Evernham was planning to leave Hendrick Motorsports to head up a new Dodge program when that manufacturer re-entered NASCAR competition.

At that time Gordon went to Rick Hendrick, and the two worked out a deal where Gordon received a lifetime contract and partial ownership in Hendrick's organization.

Stewart sought a similar deal with Gibbs.

"But after sitting and talking with Joe (Gibbs) and J.D. (Gibbs), I basically said, 'Joe, I've got an opportunity to be in a role like you are,' " Stewart explained. "And I think that's something that at the end of the day Joe respected."

It's likely that Gibbs offered Stewart nothing more than a standard contract, perhaps one that would have seen Stewart end his career with JGR. But the one thing Stewart couldn't have that he could have with Haas – team ownership – was out of the question.

The reason for this is simple. Gibbs doesn't need Stewart.

Not only does Gibbs have the hottest driver in the series in Busch, he also has Denny Hamlin, who could be the next Mark Martin – an aggressive driver who will win races and maybe a championship. And waiting in the wings is 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano, who already has proved he's ready to jump into Stewart's seat in the No. 20 car.

In reality, there was no need for Gibbs to offer anything more than a standard deal to Stewart and likely one that didn't match the kind of money Dale Earnhardt Jr. made from Hendrick, rumored to be in the $10 million per year range.

The offer to assume 50-percent ownership in Haas' team was looking a whole lot better.

Stewart refused to talk about the financial details of ownership during Thursday's press conference. However, he made it appear the terms very much were in his favor. In fact, he made it seem as if his investment in the team essentially was his name and little else.

"Having that opportunity, and being given 50 percent of an operation to come in and not only drive but be part of it, was something that was a huge variable to us," Stewart said. "(It) basically led to our decision and where we are today."

Convenience and timing proved to be everything.

The next step is to perform.

From the moment he arrived on the NASCAR scene in 1999, Stewart has been with a winner. He won three races his rookie season with JGR and has won at least two every year since.

That streak will be put to the test next year, especially considering he'll be without crew chief Greg Zipadelli for the first time in his NASCAR career.

"There are no guarantees with this," Stewart said. "But after sitting down and evaluating what the potential of this team is, I wouldn't have made this decision if I didn't think it would be successful and if I didn't think it had the potential to be great."

We know Stewart can drive. Now he has to prove he can own.

Veteran motorsports writer Bob Margolis is Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR reporter. Send Bob a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Thursday, Jul 10, 2008 9:31 pm, EDT

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