Always A Racer, Forever A Champion –

Smoke’s NASCAR Legacy

stewart%20hero%20%2811%29

As the sun sets on Tony Stewart’s NASCAR career, Lee Spencer reflects on an illustrious racing record which featured 49 race victories and three Cup wins – including one as an owner-driver with Stewart-Haas Racing. Here, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and many more friends and colleagues from around the sport pay tribute to Smoke and the lasting impact he has made to the world of motor racing.

Tony Stewart didn’t want his Sprint Cup retirement tour to be another dog and pony show. He got his wish.

While a few track presidents offered the three-time NASCAR champion an accolade or two along the way – or even a full-size ‘Smoke’ bobblehead, as was the case at Texas Motor Speedway – there certainly wasn’t the fanfare that might otherwise accorde a driver of Stewart’s stature.

“It’s not going to be what it should be,” said Kevin Harvick, who not only drives for Stewart but considers him a close friend. “I don’t think anybody did a very good job of giving him the credit that he deserved throughout the year at the race tracks and from a sports standpoint. That has been very disappointing from my standpoint.

“I know that Tony probably would say that he didn’t want that, but I don’t think anybody has done a very good job of giving him the credit for the time that he has put in and had in the sport. A three-time champion, multiple race winner, IndyCar champion and winner to auto racing in general. It’s been pretty disheartening to me to see the lack of credit that he has gotten.”

On Thursday night in Las Vegas, that changed. Stewart was surprised on stage by his hero, A.J. Foyt, who attended NASCAR’s After the Lap programme, which also featured a Smoke ‘roast’. Foyt said, “Tony, I’m honoured that you chose the number 14. [But] I’m more honoured that you’re my friend.”

Stewart’s record in racing is unmistakeable. In 1995, he became the first United States Auto Club driver to earn the Triple Crown (Silver Crown, sprint cars and midgets) in the same year. And although Stewart never won the Indianapolis 500, the 1997 IndyCar champ won three races, seven poles and six podiums in his two full seasons on the tour.

tony-hero-2

After winning rookie NASCAR honours – and three races in 1999 – Stewart earned the Winston Cup in 2002. Stewart would become the only driver to win NASCAR titles under the Winston, Nextel and Sprint sponsorship, as well as under the Latford scoring system and the 10 and 12-man Chase.

Once the Chase was introduced in 2004, Stewart qualified for the post-season in nine of the first 10 years. But his final title run in 2011 was a battle for the ages. Reflecting on the contest, Carl Edwards said, “That was truly the neatest thing I’ve been involved with in motorsport. That was so much fun. You talk about build-up and focus, being able to execute.”

And execute Stewart did – in dramatic fashion. Stewart had not won a race in the first 26 events prior to the Chase that year. He entered the 10-race post-season 11th in the standings. Then, the winning began – in the first race, at Chicagoland Speedway, and the following week at Loudon. Halfway through, Stewart had climbed to fifth in the standings, still chasing Edwards.

With two races remaining in the Chase, Stewart’s victories at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway closed the margin to three points over Edwards, who had led the standings for six races. Although Edwards’ average finish was 4.9 in the Chase – including second-place results in the final three races – Stewart’s win at Homestead was the coup de grace. The drivers scored the same total points, but Stewart’s five wins provided the tiebreaker and the title.

“To get to race Tony at his best for a championship was really a cool experience,” Edwards added. “I watched him on his way up, he won the USAC Triple Crown that year, and that was spectacular, and then to see him progress and then finally to be able to battle him like that, that was a lot of fun.”

Stewart’s final Cup championship was also his first as an owner for Stewart-Haas Racing, having entered the NASCAR owner’s arena with Gene Haas in 2009. His departure from Joe Gibbs Racing opened the door for Joey Logano, but the young driver quickly learned how difficult it was to replace Stewart.

“Obviously I got to take over the 20 car when he moved on to start his own race team. I got to spend a lot of time with his team after that and heard plenty of stories about him, and a lot of them, yes, I can’t share,” Logano said. “It was a lot of fun getting to know him over that part, and the beginning part of my career.

stewart%20hero%20%289%29

“But we’re talking about just the ultimate racer, right? He’s the racer’s racer. Obviously with his dirt track and all the different things that he’s done for our sport, and he’s got a huge heart, and I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t know about Tony as much as you see from the outside, that he’s a hard-nosed racer, and you see the drive and determination from that standpoint.

“Outside of the car, you see that he’s got a very giving heart, which is something that’s really cool. From seeing both sides of it, it’s been fun.”

Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has also seen a softer side to Stewart. And the 7-time champion even had an eye-opening experience aboard ‘Air Smoke’.

“We’re racing in the Rolex 24, and he’s going to give me a ride from the Las Vegas test session down to Daytona for the 24 hour race,” Johnson said. “I get on his airplane, and there are two greyhound dogs, and we get up in the air, he cuts up two filet mignons, which I think are probably our meals, which he feeds to the dogs, and then he reaches into a Burger King bag and throws me a Whopper.

“I said, all right. This is interesting. They were two racing dogs that he had rescued and had somewhere he was taking them to take care of them.”

Johnson, who has raced against Stewart for the last 15 seasons, knows all too well that Smoke wasn’t nearly as generous on the race track.

“I wasn’t old enough to really watch Parnelli Jones or an A.J. Foyt race in all these different vehicles. But Tony Stewart, I was able to see that,” Johnson said. “So I just feel like he’s a driver that, maybe not that he was a generation too late, but he could have fit in so well in some previous eras and raced anything, anywhere in the world and won and been successful. I have a ton of respect for him, I absolutely do.”

tony-hero-4

Perhaps that’s why Johnson participated in Stewart’s send-off during the Sprint Cup Awards banquet. While NASCAR was in Vegas to celebrate Johnson’s remarkable seventh title, Stewart’s final farewell became the evening showstopper.

Indeed, no one expected that Eddie Vedder, frontman for the band Pearl Jam, would be there to introduce the Stewart tribute segment. Stewart’s contributions in motorsports have been many. From racer to team owner, track owner and series promoter, Stewart has affected countless lives. But it was Stewart’s donation to the Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) Research Project – Vedder and his wife Jill’s favourite cause – that endeared the musician to the driver.

“When I first met Tony, I was humbled to hear how much our music meant to him,” Vedder said. “It got him through some rough, tough and difficult times – and I can relate. You know that music can inspire and friends can do all they can to help but it’s really up to the individual to lift the burdens and persevere and live to live again, and live to race again, and live to win again. It’s incredible. I know it was quite the journey for you, Tony.”

Stewart’s introduction to Vedder came in April, some time after the driver had been side-lined for four months following the dune buggy accident which saw him suffer a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra, putting him out of action for the start of his final season. After their meeting, Stewart returned to racing the following day at Richmond. And although he endured his share of ups and downs throughout the season, Stewart’s win at Sonoma eight races later qualified him for the Chase.

Winning a fourth championship in his final season may have eluded Tony Stewart. But that did nothing to dull the lustre of what has no doubt been a magnificent career – one that will have him remembered as one of the greatest drivers, and certainly one of the most unique characters, ever to get behind the wheel of a stock car.

tony-hero-3