It’s finally here. Tony Stewart will end his NASCAR Cup career at the track where he celebrated his third, and final, NASCAR Cup title. Stewart won that title in dramatic fashion winning the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2011. He won the race and the championship in a tiebreaker over driver Carl Edwards.
Now, after those three titles, 618 Cup starts and 49 wins, Stewart will race one last time as a full time NASCAR driver this Sunday at Homestead. The driver, who many agree is a future Hall of Famer, is ending his 18 season career of 36 Cup races a year. However, Tuesday in his weekly team preview, Stewart reminded everyone that his racing career is far from over.
“You’re going to see me driving a lot next year, but most of it will be on dirt,” Stewart said.
“I kind of look at this as halftime of my career and I’ll still be around the NASCAR garage,” he added. “I’ll just have more time. If I see Richard Petty or anyone else in the garage, I can go over and talk to him now and not have to worry about getting to the car or trying to figure out how to make my car go faster. I can focus now on what I want to do and my job at SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing.)”
Stewart said he wants his final race to be simple, without a lot of fanfare. Although he did win in his final season, Stewart is not among the Championship 4 who will race for the title. Sunday he just wants to do what he does best, drive a racecar; as he has done all season long.
“We didn’t want all the ceremony and distraction this year,” Stewart said. “We just wanted to focus on the racecar and run well and let the NASCAR fans see us race a final time.”
Sure, Stewart would like to go out with a win. And he has won at Homestead, three times: in his rookie year of 1999 and 2000, and in 2011 when he won the title. However, besides his lone win at Sonoma in June, Stewart hasn’t been all that competitive this season. So a win Sunday, while it would be celebrated by everyone connected to the sport, is unlikely.
Also likely missing Sunday will be the hardnosed Tony Stewart once beloved by legions of fans, and hated by drivers who got in his way. It won’t be like the days of old when “Smoke” was a force to be reckoned with on the track, and an emotional man out of the racecar whose temper led to more than one confrontation over the years, not only with drivers on and off the track, but officials, and even the media.
So what’s next for Stewart?
“There are races and places I want to go to that I haven’t been able to go to because of our schedule,” he said. “It’s not like I have a great vacation I want to go do. I am so mental about racing that everything I want to do has racing in it. There are races and events I haven’t seen – as a fan, spectator – and some I even want to race in. It’s nice to have some flexibility.”
Looking back, Stewart can now reflect on all the NASCAR history he has witnessed, and been a part of. He can also talk about the greatest drivers he ever raced against.
“Before I got to NASCAR, the greatest guy was Kenny Irwin Jr.,” Stewart said. “We were rivals, but there were a lot of times where we had a lot of fun together. He was somebody I had a high level of respect for. When I came to NASCAR, everybody was fun. You had Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Jeff Burton and others. I mean, they were all fun before they were fun guys. They all their own personalities and things they liked and disliked. Mike Skinner was a good friend of mine back when he was running full-time.
“There were a lot of fun guys,” he added. “That’s the best part about the sport. It’s the people who are part of it that make it what it is.”
Once the final race is over. Once the season officially ends, what is it that Stewart will miss the most.
“Well, this year’s my 18th year but, you know,” he said. “I think it’s – I turned 45 this year and you know I still have unfinished business in dirt-track racing that I want to do and, yeah, winning three championships on the Cup side, and I never won the Daytona 500 but I won the Brickyard 400 twice. So I’ve had a really good run there and there are a lot of things in the sport that are changing. “
“But something that’s important to me is I don’t want to lose track of where I came from, and I’m ready to go back to dirt racing,” he added. “I’m really craving it. I think the stress of trying to be an owner and driver at SHR, I mean, it’s hard to have that much weight on your shoulders and try to compete at that high of a level as a driver and, at the same time, be an owner. So, stepping away from the driver side and being able to do a better job of focusing on the four drivers we’ll have next year. That’ll make my life a lot easier. “
“At the same time, it gives me the opportunity to play two roles. I get to be the boss of SHR but, in the evening, I get to go race and have fun myself and get my fix that way. So I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be – I can already tell – it’s going to be a lot of fun. I mean, Jeff Gordon and I are great friends and he’s in his first year of retirement, so he’s already told me what to look forward to for the next year. So I’m excited about that.”
As for things away from racing, Stewart doesn’t know what he will be doing.
“Yeah, I’m just not sure what they all are, yet,” Stewart said. “That’s the thing. When you have raced for 38 years, that’s all you know, it’s all you think about, that is all you dream about. When you wake up, you’re thinking about it. While you are eating breakfast, that’s all you do. I just can’t imagine that there’s not more to life than this. I know there is. I know people who talk about it all the time. I’ve got friends like Don Prudhomme and Ray Evernham and guys who are already retired who talk about how much fun they’re having. I’m like, ‘Man, that sounds like a good time to me.’”
Now that it’s coming to an end, what has the final season been like for Stewart?
“Before the season started, we said our only goal was to go out and have fun,” he said. “Anything else would be icing on the cake.”
That fun will end at the conclusion of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday, his icing on the cake. And when NASCAR takes to the track in 2017, it will be without one of its more colorful characters. The once brash young guy from Indiana who will someday will have a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He will still be in the garage, but won’t have the grind of 36 races a year. He’ll still be racing, just not on the biggest stage is stock car auto racing. Instead he will be dueling it out on a dirt track somewhere in America. And that will be just fine with Tony Stewart.