Tony Stewart is at peace. And that’s saying something for one of the most controversial, confrontational, outspoken, yet respected drivers in auto-racing history.
Not to mention one of the most successful.
Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, is literally on the final laps of his career as a Cup driver, having announced last fall that the 2016 season would be his last. Though Stewart, 45, may be stepping away from the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet, he’s not retiring from racing.
“Here’s the reality of it,” Stewart reflected in advance of Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway, a track where he has won twice. “It’s going to end no matter (if) I’m ready. In six weeks, it’s going to be over. I’m probably at peace. There’s no anxiety attached to it.
“People ask, ‘What are you’re going to do next year?’ and I say, ‘Whatever I want.’ It’s the first time in 20 years I’m not going to be on NASCAR’s schedule. You look at all the stuff I’ve got going on …”
Indeed, Stewart has 50 percent ownership in Stewart-Haas Racing, which operates four Sprint Cup teams and is adding an Xfinity Series team in 2017. He owns Eldora Speedway, an iconic dirt-track in Ohio, plus his own sprint-car team, as well as others. In fact, Stewart plans to race as many as 40 to 50 times next year in his beloved sprint cars on short dirt tracks around the country.
“I still have unfinished business in dirt-track racing,” Stewart said. “I don’t want to lose track of where I came from, and I’m ready to go back dirt racing. I’m really craving it. The stress of trying to be an owner and driver at SHR … 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, I’ll be able to do a better job of focusing on the four drivers that we’ll have next year.”
Stewart, a native of Columbus, Ind., is the only driver to win championships in the United States Auto Club, the Sprint Cup and Indy Car series. Before making the move from open-wheel cars to the fender-bashing stock cars of NASCAR in 1999, he won the 1995 United States Auto Club’s Sprint Car, Midget and Silver Crown championships, becoming the first to win the “Triple Crown” in a single season, and he followed that up as the 1996 Indy Car Rookie of the Year and 1997 Indy Car series champion.
Stewart was Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year in 1999 and won Cup championships in 2002 and 2005 for Joe Gibbs Racing. Three seasons after forming Stewart-Haas, he won the 2011 championship in a one-on-one battle with Carl Edwards and was the first owner-driver to win the Sprint Cup title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
Only four others — Richard Petty (seven), Dale Earnhardt (seven), Jimmie Johnson (six) and Jeff Gordon (four) — have won more Sprint Cup championships than Stewart.
“There is absolutely no question Stewart is one of the top-five stock-car racing drivers of all-time and one of the most versatile NASCAR has ever seen,” said three-time Cup champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, now a commentator for Fox Sports.
“He has won championships in the Cup Series, IndyCar Series, sprint cars and IROC (International Race of Champions). That versatility sets him apart from most anyone who has ever graced the cockpit of a stock car. Stewart is the epitome of a pure driver who only cares about racing. He doesn’t do it for the fame or the money but rather for the thrill and love of the competition.”
“He has kept it exciting, it doesn’t matter who you are. I look at him as a guy that is like the A.J. Foyt or Parnelli Jones of our era.”
Jimmie Johnson on Tony Stewart
In all, Stewart, known as “Smoke,” has won 49 career Sprint Cup races, including the road course at Sonoma, Calif., this year which qualified him for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He ranks 14th all-time with 62 NASCAR wins, including 11 in the Xfinity Series and two in the Camping World Trucks Series.
Along the way, Stewart became one of the sport’s most polarizing figures. He has amassed several hundred thousands of dollars in fines during his 18-year NASCAR career stemming from on-track altercations with competitors, heated arguments with reporters and photographers and criticisms of NASCAR when it comes to rules, tire and safety issues.
“He has kept it exciting, it doesn’t matter who you are,” said six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “I look at him as a guy that is like the A.J. Foyt or Parnelli Jones of our era.
“He is a fierce competitor, an amazing friend, especially when you get the helmet off of him. You can go from wanting to kill each other on the race track to crashing each other on the race track to being best of friends. I’ve certainly experienced that. I’ve been in the NASCAR trailer with him after we have run each other over after the checkered flag came out at the Daytona 500 and two days later he is bringing me a pizza to my motorhome.”
In April, Stewart, nicknamed the Conscience of the Garage by his fellow drivers, questioned NASCAR’s commitment to safety and was fined $35,000 for criticizing a rule that did not require all five lug nuts to be secured on a wheel before a driver left pit road. The sport’s Drivers Council picked up the fine for Stewart, and a week later, NASCAR rescinded its rule and required all lug nuts must be affixed.
“I do it because I care about the sport,” Stewart said of his frequently taking on the NASCAR establishment. “It’s what I’m passionate about. It’s why the fans like us, it’s why the competitors like us … there are 39 guys, and 99 out of 100 times, they won’t say anything.
“I’m the one guy who gets (angry) enough to talk about it, because I think it’s worth talking about, and … that’s when I normally get slapped on the hand with a fine. … Part of the season I’m retiring, I’m tired of being responsible. I’m tired of fighting the fight.”
The past four years have been difficult for Stewart.
Stewart missed the final 15 races of the 2013 season after he was involved in a multi-car crash when a lapped car spun in front of him in a sprint-car race in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Stewart suffered a broken right leg, and his Sprint Cup consecutive start streak ended at 521 races.
His darkest moment occurred on Aug. 9, 2014 at another dirt track race in Canandaigua, N.Y. After Kevin Ward Jr.’s sprint car hit the wall and spun out, the 20-year-old driver got out of his car and walked onto the track as Stewart continued around the poorly lit dirt track. Ward, in a dark racing suit, was barely visible as he gestured at Stewart and was killed when the right rear tire of Stewart’s car struck him.
In September 2014, a grand jury exonerated Stewart of any criminal charges, but that didn’t ease the heartache he felt.
“This has been the toughest and most emotional experience of my life, and it will stay with me forever,” Stewart said after prosecutors announced they did not have evidence to suggest Stewart meant to harm Ward.
“While much of the attention has been on me, it’s important to remember a young man lost his life.”
A shaken Stewart sat out three races after the incident and failed to win a Cup race for the first time in 16 Sprint Cup seasons. He went winless in 2015 and missed the Chase for the third straight season. Then, last Jan. 31, Stewart suffered severe back injuries in an all-terrain accident in California, causing him to miss the first eight races this season.
Stewart returned on April 24, and he won his first race in four seasons on the road course at Sonoma on June 26, which qualified him for the 16-driver Chase. After races at Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover, he failed to advance to the Round of 12, but that doesn’t diminish Stewart’s legacy.
“Tony’s biggest effect hasn’t been on NASCAR, his biggest effect has been on auto racing in general, whether it’s NASCAR, IndyCars, sprint cars, late models,” said Kevin Harvick, who won the 2014 Sprint Cup title for Stewart-Haas. “He’s had an influence on racing series and people and helped people.”
Stewart’s concern for people extends beyond the race track. The Tony Stewart Foundation has donated more than $6.5 million in grants to charities in 41 states, including a $1 million donation to the Victory Junction Camp for children with chronic illnesses in 2003 and another $1 million in 2006.
The first 14,000 fans to enter the gates at Kansas Speedway on Sunday will receive a commemorative pin saluting Stewart, whose warm feeling for the area extends beyond his wins at Kansas in 2006 and 2009.
“The thing I like about going to Kansas is we have a lot of short-track fans in that area who watched me coming up through the ranks,” Stewart said. “When you are in the garage area and you are walking to your car, you hear someone say ‘I got to see you at Lakeside (Speedway) or I-70 Speedway.’
“To have people there for a Cup weekend but appreciate what you did in your open-wheel career and got to see you, that’s what makes Kansas really cool, it’s the people that are there.”