Will Tony Stewart's Last Season Be Celebrated or Largely Forgettable?

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2016

I traveled the country writing about NASCAR for 20 years, 1993-2012. Tony Stewart didn't arrive at NASCAR's highest level until 1999. It seems incredible now that I covered NASCAR for six seasons without Stewart in it.

Just as incredible is that Stewart—three-time champion of what is now Sprint Cup, winner of 48 races and sure Hall of Famer—could go through an entire season without a top-five finish and finish 28th in the 2015 season rankings.

Tony Stewart's Bests and Worsts
Victories6 (2000)0 (2014,15)
Top 5 Finishes17 (2005)0 (2015)
Top 10 Finishes25 (2005)3 (2015)
Poles3 (2005)0 (8 times)
Laps Led1,845 (2005)24 (2015)
Earnings$13,578,168 (2005)$3,190,149 (1999)
Average Start12.0 (2005)18.3 (2015)
Average Finish9.9 (2005)24.8 (2015)
Miles Completed14,436.8 (2005)8,065.0 (2013)
Laps Completed10,738 (2010)5,744 (2013)

The coming Sprint Cup season will be Stewart's last. In 2017, Clint Bowyer will replace him. He wants to go out a winner. A winner of at least a race. He wants to go out competitive. Who doesn't?

"There's going to be a lot of change," Stewart said on November 19, 2015, in Homestead, Florida. "It's not like we were a 15th-place car. We haven't been even close to that, unfortunately. 

"The hard part is when you get back where we're at right now, it's hard to sit there and say exactly what you need because, if it was that easy, we'd have fixed it by now, which makes it even more difficult to sit here, and to be honest, and tell you what we know needs to be changed."

He's got one final shot at a fourth championship. The past three seasons have been tough in a variety of ways, but I consider Stewart's third championship, in 2011, the most remarkable achievement of my years in the sport. Stewart won half the races in the Chase. He came from behind to defeat Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker. They had the same number of points (2,403). Stewart won only the five Chase races, including three of the last four. Edwards finished second in the final three but won none of the 10.

"The way that all happened in the final 10 races...I don't think there's anything that's ever going to top that," Stewart said on September 30, 2015, the day he announced his impending retirement.

At Homestead, back in 2011, I said and wrote, probably for the umpteenth time but the most dramatic, that I would never count out Stewart again. Hence, I won't count him out now, but if his final season is going to be a successful one, he's going to have to beat some long odds.

Stewart is the most complicated, fascinating driver I've ever encountered. It's hard to imagine the sport without him. Sure, he's still going to be there. He owns part of the Stewart-Haas Racing team, which also won a championship in 2014 with Kevin Harvick. What I can't imagine is the sport without Stewart in the cockpit, behind the wheel, performing magic so rare that not even he has ever fully appreciated it.

It's why I wrote a book about Stewart in 2001 called Rebel with a Cause. It was an account of Stewart's 2000 season, a tumultuous affair.

The greats are unimpressed by their greatness. It comes too naturally for them.

"This last year is not just a ride-it-out year," Stewart said. "We're going to gouge our eyes out and do everything we can to win races and win another championship. I'm looking forward to that."

Here's hoping it doesn't come to that, the gouging out of eyes, I mean.

The departed Jeff Gordon was Stewart's antithesis: calm where Stewart was fiery, tactful where Stewart was combustible and analytical where Stewart was emotional. Gordon arrived in NASCAR earlier. They are both 44 years old. Stewart whiled away more of his career in Indy cars and open-wheeled Midget and Sprint cars. Both began that way. Their names will one day be grouped in the way of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti, Richard Petty and David Pearson and other celebrated antitheses.

They are mutual admirers, each aware that the other is what he is not. Gordon went out with a third-place finish in his final Chase. Stewart does not want to go out in 28th.

Recent years have been unkind to Stewart. They have taken a toll. He missed part of 2013 after suffering a gruesome leg injury in a sprint-car wreck. Another wreck, a controversial, litigious one, resulted in the death of another driver, Kevin Ward Jr., in 2014.

Retirement, Stewart said, had nothing to with all the adversity, anguish and controversy. "Zero percent. Not one percent has anything to do with it. I mean, this is strictly what I want to do, and my leg feels fine.

"The tragedy? Nothing is going to change that. It happened, but it's not going to direct the rest of my life."

Stewart stressed that he is only retiring from the Sprint Cup Series. He hasn't ruled out making the occasional appearance in the Xfinity and/or Camping World Truck series, particularly in the latter's annual dirt race at the Ohio track that Stewart owns, Eldora. He has talked about endurance races, running the NASCAR Modifieds in New Hampshire and returning to the short tracks of the Midwest where he cut his teeth.

Stewart believes rule changes will play into his skills.

"[They] definitely suit my driving style better than this era of taking horsepower away and adding downforce," he said.

Yet the words seem strange coming from the mouth of a man once celebrated for being able to climb into anything with four wheels and win. Over time, the most adaptable of racers has become set in his ways.

"I'm still going to go race when I want to go race, but as far as the Cup Series, [tragedy] had no bearing on [retirement]," he said.

The Years Take a Toll
DriverAge in Final SeasonAge at Final Win
Richard Petty5547
David Pearson5145
Mark Martin5450
Darrell Waltrip5245
Dale Jarrett5148
Rusty Wallace4947
Fred Lorenzen3732

In another sense, however, the events of recent years have shortened Stewart's career. Drivers often slow down when they reached their 40s, but those who don't are those who remain active. The slow decline of many drivers—Darrell Waltrip, Terry and Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton, among them—can be traced to concentrating solely on the Sprint Cup Series late in their careers.

No one wants to accept it—"He hasn't forgotten how to drive a race car" is the commonly used cliche—but no one can refute the notion, either. Drivers who remain proficient for a long time—Harry Gant and Bobby Allison immediately come to mind—are almost always those who keep racing as often as possible.

That, too, was Stewart's great edge, but then he spent two years of injury and tragedy, mending his leg and dealing with sorrow, exiled from the dirt tracks he so loves.

Of course, Stewart is going back to the short tracks when his NASCAR gig is up. His soul is closer to Rossburg, Ohio, home of Eldora Raceway, than Daytona Beach, Florida, mecca of NASCAR.


Follow @montedutton on Twitter.

All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.


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