Lee Spencer on why the bowing out of a NASCAR legend is only the beginning for Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart.
To be clear, Tony Stewart is not retiring from auto racing. Although he announced last week that 2016 will be his final year behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car, the driver nicknamed ‘Smoke’ will never be able to exorcise racing from his system.
Yes, Stewart has enjoyed a prolific NASCAR career. He’s the only driver to earn three championships under three different entitlements (Winston, Nextel and Sprint) and two different formats (season-long points system and 10-race Chase). He has recorded 48 victories on 21 of 23 tracks on the Cup tour, and posted 182 Top-5s and 299 Top-10 finishes in 583 starts.
Yet it is Stewart’s contributions outside of the race car that will continue paying dividends long after his name is removed from the window of the No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet.
And he’s just getting started.
Stewart, 44, acknowledged it was “100%” his decision to make next year his last. Clint Bowyer will take over the No. 14 SHR Chevy in 2016. For someone with his competitive nature, standing 25th in the Sprint Cup standings and having not won a race in 70 starts, Stewart knew it was time.
“It’s a scenario where everybody in their career at some point makes the decision that it’s time for a change, and it’s nothing that you plan,” Stewart said. “I think it just happens. I think, deep down, you know when it’s time to do something to make a change like this.”
Certainly, Stewart’s progress has been slowed over the last three years. His 2013 season ended prematurely when he broke his leg during a sprint car race in August. Stewart returned for Speedweeks in 2014, but was 19th in the point standings when he was involved in a sprint car accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. in August. He missed the next three races and finished 25th in the standings.
Stewart insists the two incidents had “no bearing” on his decision.
“This is strictly what I want to do, and my leg feels fine,” Stewart said. “There’s nothing wrong with my leg. The tragedy; nothing is going to change that. It happened, but it’s not going to direct the rest of my life. I’m still going to go race when I want to go race.”
A Versatile Champion
Still, throughout Stewart’s storied career, he’s always been on top of his game. In 1995, he became the first driver to win USAC’s Triple Crown in one season. Two years later, Stewart won the Indy Racing League title.
He moved to NASCAR full-time in 1999 and won rookie-of-the-year honours. In 2002, Stewart won the Winston Cup title. Of the Columbus (Ind.) native’s 48 career Cup wins, his two (2005, 2007) at the Brickyard 400 rank at the very top.
Throughout his NASCAR tenure, Stewart has never ventured far from his dirt roots. In 2002, he hoisted his first Golden Driller (the trophy that goes to the Chili Bowl winner), then won a second Chili Bowl in 2007. After Stewart purchased the iconic Eldora Speedway in 2004, he founded the Prelude to the Dream – a charity event featuring dirt late models. Stewart won the Prelude a record-three times.
Sure, there are gaps in Stewart’s resume. He never won the Indy 500. Despite winning four times at Daytona International Speedway – along with three Shootouts and three Duels – he hasn’t won the 500. And in 23 starts at Darlington Raceway, his best result is third. With the Southern 500 moving back to its traditional Labor Day date, the race remains on Stewart’s bucket list.
“I’m excited that I got two more chances,” Stewart said. “I’ve got two more big wins on the schedule that I want to win, and that’s the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500, and I wouldn’t mind adding another championship to that.”
Stewart will not attempt the Indianapolis 500 again, but when it comes to NASCAR, he insists 2016 will not be “a cash-and-cruise” season.
An Entrepreneurial Spirit
Stewart puts his heart into every endeavour he undertakes, and the ownership side of racing is no exception.
In addition to Eldora Speedway, where after NASCAR’s 43-year absence from dirt the Truck Series debuted in the Mudsummer Classic in 2013, Stewart is a co-owner of Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway and Macon (Ill.) Speedway.
His philanthropic side goes well beyond the Tony Stewart Foundation. On the track, he’s given countless drivers – and fellow owners – opportunities to achieve their dreams. In 2008, Stewart partnered with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing. It was a game-changer for Haas’ NASCAR operation.
“I had a good foundation,” Haas said. “We had a nice race shop, good relationships with Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports, so we had all the fundamental pieces, and I think that’s what Tony saw. ‘Hey, I can go in here and we can be up and running’, and that’s what you saw in 2009; Tony and Ryan Newman came out of the gate and they were incredibly fast and went right to the top.
“The reality of it is that Tony brought the talent and I had the foundation here, but without Tony we never would have turned into the super team that we are now, winning two championships.”
Prior to joining forces with Haas, Stewart won ownership titles in USAC with J.J. Yeley, Dave Steele, Jay Drake, Josh Wise and Levi Jones. In World of Outlaws, Stewart won his first of four titles with Donny Schatz in 2008. He currently fields cars for Schatz and 20-time WoO champion Steve Kinser.
Earlier this year, he purchased the All Star Circuit of Champions to continue providing a showcase for winged sprint cars. But Stewart, who almost certainly will be a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer, will continue to be a fixture at SHR.
“I love what I do with NASCAR and I love what I do as a driver, and the great thing is I’m not going anywhere,” Stewart said. “NASCAR is probably going to be the most disappointed of everybody today because they aren’t getting rid of me. They have to deal with me as an owner.
“There’s still the opportunity to get fined and there’s still the opportunity to be put on probation, just like always, just from a different capacity than now.”
The Right Time
Thirty-six years ago, Stewart promised his father Nelson he would step out of the car when racing wasn’t fun anymore. He’s stayed true to that promise.
Yes, he contemplated stepping out of No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevy at the end of this season, but Stewart felt the fans deserved the opportunity to say goodbye.
“It’s always been fun,” Stewart said. “There’s been more challenges in the last couple years that have distracted from that a little bit, but it’s still fun. If it wasn’t fun, I would just walk away from it.”
The relationships Stewart has forged along the way have enhanced the adventure.
“The racing side of it, we’ve done it a long time, but I think the longer time has gone on, you realise what makes it really fun is the people that are involved in it,” Stewart adds. “We genuinely have fun with these guys.
“That’s probably what makes this a lot easier than it seems; that I’m still going to be there at the track every weekend. I’m still going to be working with our sponsors every weekend, and I get to work with a guy [Bowyer] that’s as big a clown as I am.
“We’re still going to have fun doing it, and I’m still going to have fun driving race cars, too.”
For now, Stewart might be leaving the sport as a racer, but his career as an owner is just getting started. Smoke will inevitably rise. And when it comes to Tony Stewart, 2016 is just the beginning.