Tony Stewart's meteoric rise to the top of NASCAR wasn't done alone. From his Rookie of the Year title in 1999 to his two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championships and the 29 wins and 10 poles garnered in eight short years, crew chief Greg Zipadelli has been the man providing Stewart with the proper tools for success.
For more than half a decade Stewart’s engines have been powerful, his cars have been reliable and his pit stops have been fast – all under Zipadelli’s watch. Proof is in The Home Depot Racing Team’s average point finish of fifth.
“When we started this team back in late ’98, we put a young group of people together and we all made a commitment to work together and take care of each other as best as we could as a company,” said Zipadelli, quick to defer credit to those who surround him. “Without them we couldn’t have gotten as far as we have in the past seven years.
“Everyone takes a lot of pride in what we’ve been able to accomplish and how we’re structured. They ought to. They’re the hardest working group of guys in the garage. I’d be willing to put them up against anybody. I’ve been lucky that they’ve all hung together and I haven’t had any indication that any of them wanted to leave. To me, that’s good. They all plan on being here this year and in the years to come.”
Zipadelli’s mechanical skills are matched by his human resources abilities – a must for the modern day crew chief, who wears the hat of full-time mechanic, visionary and coach. What needs to be done to the race car, what needs to be done in time for the next race, and what needs to be done to keep the team happy, are all under the crew chief’s job description.
Thanks to many years of motorsports experience, Zipadelli knows race cars and team chemistry, allowing him to continue the juggling act that no crew chief can ignore.
“From the time I get up in the morning to the time I go home, I wear those hats,” said Zipadelli. “With today’s job, you wear those hats all the time – with the crew and the driver.”
As evidenced by the team’s eight-year tenure, Zipadelli wears those hats well, which is why he and Stewart have the longest active tenure of any driver/crew chief relationship in the garage.
“We’ve done a good job with working together,” said Zipadelli. “It’s all about having confidence in each other. I’m going to do whatever I can for him and in return he’s going to drive as hard as he can every lap for everybody involved.”
No one has driven harder than Stewart. In 2005, he won five races and scored more top-five and top-10 finishes and led more laps than any other Nextel Cup driver. The end result was a second Cup Series championship for Stewart and Zipadelli, with the first championship having come in 2002.
“We improved on all the things we needed to improve on from years past,” said Zipadelli, “from finishing laps to leading laps to winning races – all in the same year. And it’s meaningful to me because we did it as a group.”
“From day one we realized we both had the same passion and desire to win races,” said Stewart regarding Zipadelli, the only crew chief he’s ever worked with in Nextel Cup. “When you get two people with the same desire and the same passion, you always find a way of working well together.
“For me, it’s kind of like having a big brother who you learn from – whether it’s stuff that goes on at the race track or away from the race track, I lean on Greg quite a bit. We both have the same passion and desire to win and I think that’s a pretty strong bond right there.”
Building championship race teams through strong bonds is nothing new to Zipadelli. The Berlin, Conn., native first began working on a NASCAR Modified Series car owned by his father at the age of seven, and by age 14, he was preparing race cars for his family-owned Sherwood Racing Team.
By the time he was 20, Zipadelli was a championship-winning crew chief, leading Modified Series driver Mike McLaughlin to the series championship on the heels of five wins and 15 top-five finishes. Two years later, McLaughlin was offered a ride in the NASCAR Busch North Series with prominent New England car owner Mike Greci. At the behest of the driver, Greci named Zipadelli as crew chief for the Busch North effort. The tandem recorded five wins between 1990 and 1993.
McLaughlin departed Greci’s operation at the end of the 1993 season, but Zipadelli stayed with the team and worked with a handful of drivers in 1994 and 1995. Zipadelli’s perseverance paid off in 1996 when driver Mike Stefanik joined the team with substantial sponsorship backing. While no wins were recorded that year, eight top-five and nine top-10 finishes made way for a championship season in 1997. Stefanik marched to the Busch North title that year riding a wave of consistency with two wins, 14 top-five finishes and 16 top-10 finishes, giving Zipadelli his second NASCAR touring series championship in less than a decade.
Upon receiving his second championship ring at the age of 29, Zipadelli headed south in 1998 to join Roush Racing’s Cup operation as the chassis specialist for the No. 99 team of driver Jeff Burton. With Zipadelli’s astute recommendations for chassis setups, Burton won two races, earned 18 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes and finished fifth in points.
Zipadelli’s ascension up the racing ladder wasn’t over. In fact, it had just begun.
When team owner Joe Gibbs began laying the groundwork for a second team with Stewart behind the wheel, he conferred with veteran Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Jimmy Makar as to who would be the best choice to lead the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team. They looked no further than Zipadelli.
“As I worked and grew up, racing in Nextel Cup and winning a championship, never mind multiple championships, was obviously my dream,” said Zipadelli. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is race. That’s pretty much all I’ve ever done. It’s pretty cool to be here.
“We’ve got the biggest group of competitive people ever put together under one roof at Joe Gibbs Racing. We’re all focusing and aiming in the same direction all at the same time. That’s the key thing. It’s not myself. It’s not Tony. It’s everybody.
Keeping that competitive fire in check is yet another job of the crew chief. In Zipadelli’s case, it’s a job that has made him a better crew chief.
“Tony has helped me mature as a person and as a leader by having to adjust to some of the situations we’ve encountered over the years,” said Zipadelli. “We’re both emotional people, and sometimes we wish that we didn’t have to be so emotional about things. But this sport is an emotional sport. When you put a lot of time and effort into something, and you wind up disappointed, sometimes it’s hard to control your emotions.
“On the positive side, I think that is what makes Tony such a passionate person for the sport because he has so much emotion. He’s a winner. He’s a racer. He has a lot of love and passion for this sport and its competitiveness. He’s not a good loser. But like the old saying goes, show me a good loser and you won’t find a good winner. That’s what makes him special. He’s brought a lot of fun moments and some tough moments to this race team. But that’s what this sport is about, and it’s made this race team better.”
“Zippy cares about me as a person and not as a piece of equipment,” adds Stewart. “Having that kind of support from that kind of a person is what gets you through the tough times. And when you do have success, that’s what makes it more gratifying.”
Zipadelli makes his home in Mooresville, N.C., with his wife Nan, son Zachary and daughter Elwina Sophia.
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