Tony Stewart took his final ride in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race car Sunday night at Homestead Miami Speedway, driving his Stewart Haas Motorsports Chevrolet to a 22nd-place finish in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400.
The exit was not what Stewart or his fans would have wished. In a perfect world, the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion would have exited in Victory Lane; a winner in his final career NASCAR start. But in a 2016 campaign with relatively few competitive highlights, the Indiana native exited with a whimper, rather than a bang.
Despite his lukewarm farewell performance, however, Stewart climbed from his No, 14 Chevrolet wearing a contended smile. Burdened these last few years by sponsor commitments, legal entanglements and injury, the driver known as “Smoke” is free to do what he wants to do going forward, rather than what he is contractually obligated to do.
“This is the last one,” said Stewart Friday, vowing not to be lured back into the cockpit the way Jeff Gordon was earlier this season.
“I think I learned my lesson from Jeff,” laughed Stewart. “He tried to do somebody a favor this year and got roped into running half the season. Thank you, Jeff for teaching me a lesson before I got roped in.”
While he will not be strapping into Sprint Cup Series machinery on Sunday afternoons any longer, Stewart made it clear that he has no plans to retire as a driver.
“I have a lot of race cars to have fun in,” he said, repeating his oft-stated pledge to increase the amount of time spent on dirt tracks across the country. “I would love to race the (Camping World) Truck race at Eldora.
“Since I was eight-years old, there has never been a thought in my mind about doing anything outside of racing,” he added. “I don’t know what to do outside of racing. 24/7, my mind is consumed (with racing) in some capacity.”
The mere mention of dirt racing brings a gleam to Stewart’s eye. He clearly relishes the thought of tossing a Sprint Car sideways through minefields of choppy red clay next season, and with career winnings in excess of $122 million, he has the financial wherewithal to do so at the very highest level. For Stewart, a return to dirt in 2017 represents a return to his racing roots; where post-race festivities are long on cold beer and short on Media Center obligations.
That’s dirt racing’s gain and NASCAR’s loss.
Since the day he arrived – a rail-thin wunderkind straight out of the open wheel Indy Car ranks – Stewart has served as NASCAR’s resident truth teller. Unwilling -- or perhaps incapable -- of giving anything but his honest opinion, Stewart angered NASCAR officials, track owners, fellow drivers and media members alike. He lampooned rule changes, criticized driving tactics and mocked moronic questions with equal glee. His weekly media availabilities were can’t-miss affairs, veering instantaneously from insightful to sarcastic, bombastic to belligerent.
He was sometimes inconsistent in his commentary, like the day he lambasted the blocking tactics employed by drivers at Daytona and Talladega, saying “we’re probably going to kill somebody… and it could be me.” Moments later, he employed those same blocking tactics himself; blissfully ignorant of the irony. NASCAR responded by implementing strict regulations on blocking and bump-drafting.
After criticizing NASCAR in the past for being over-officious, Stewart demand this season that the sanctioning body regulate lug nuts to save teams from themselves. The sanctioning body fined him $35,000 for those comments, then changed its lug nut rule less than a week later.
He blasted NASCAR Chairman Brian France earlier this year for failing to attend meetings of the Sprint Cup Drivers Council. France defending his absence, insisting that drivers spoke more candidly without him in the room. Weeks later, France attended his first Driver’s Council meeting.
That’s the wonder of Tony Stewart. Calling it like he sees it, come hell or high water.
Stewart’s brand of heart-on-his-sleeve outspokenness has its price, however. His periodic clashes with media, NASCAR and his fellow drivers have branded him a “loose cannon” in some circles, and the 2014 incident that resulted in the death of Sprint Car driver Kevin Ward, Jr. only reinforced the renegade image in some people’s eyes.
“Part of the reason I’m retiring is because I’m tired of being responsible for (speaking out),” Said Stewart recently. “It’s somebody else’s responsibility now. I’ve had my fill of it. I’ve had my fill of fighting the fight. At some point, you say, ‘Why do I keep fighting this fight when I’m not getting anywhere?’
“There are 39 of these guys (in the Sprint Cup garage) that -- 99 out of 100 times -- won’t say a thing to you guys or to NASCAR or anybody else. I’m the one guy that will say, ‘Man this is a bad thing to talk about, I shouldn’t talk about it,’ but I’ll get pissed off enough about it to talk about it, because I believe it’s worth talking about.”
Stewart’s on-track ride has not always been smooth, either. In 2013, he suffered a gruesome compound fracture of his right leg in a grinding Sprint Car crash, missing the remainder of the NASCAR season.
The following year brought Ward’s death, and allegations that Stewart had intentionally struck and killed the New York youngster after an on-track tangle just moments before. “It’s not something that goes away,’’ said Stewart after being cleared of criminal charges following the incident. “It will never go away. It’s going to be part of my life the rest of my life.’’
This season, a freak sand buggy accident left him with a fractured vertebra in his back that sidelined him for eight more races.
Those incidents left Stewart with far more pain -- both physical and emotional – than the average 45-year old, and while he energized his fan base with a flashback victory at Sonoma in June, he ended the 2017 campaign left him only 15th in the championship standings, with almost as many finishes of 30th or worse (seven) as Top-10s (eight).
Few drivers leave the sport at their competitive peak. Father Time is undefeated, after all. But Stewart’s decline into competitive mediocrity has been as difficult for him to accept as it was for us to watch.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t win a Daytona 500, a Southern 500 and most of all, an Indy 500,” said Stewart at Homestead last week. “But when I was 15 (or) 18 years old, I never even thought I would get a chance to race those races, let alone to win them.
“In a perfect world, I would have loved to be able to cross those three races off the list. But at the same time, I look at the big picture. It was pretty damn cool to just have the opportunity to race those races.”
His 49 career NASCAR Cup Series wins place him 13th on NASCAR’s all-time list. His three premier series championships make him a guaranteed, first-ballot Hall of Famer. And his take-no-quarter style – both on and off the race track – will ensure that he is sorely missed by NASCAR Nation.
Thanks, Smoke. It’s been one hell of a ride.