Will Tony Stewart Ever Return to the Driver He Once Was?

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2014

Will Tony Stewart get back to the Smoke of old?
Will Tony Stewart get back to the Smoke of old?Cheryl Senter/Associated Press

After suffering a broken leg one year and then being involved in a tragic accident that claimed the life of a young driver the next, will Tony Stewart ever return to the Smoke of old?

Stewart's injuries sustained in a sprint car race in Iowa in August 2013 were bad enough, causing him to miss the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup season.

Then came Aug. 9 of this year, when Stewart's life would be forever changed by yet another sprint car mishap, this one with more dire results, when his race car struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. during a race at an upstate New York dirt track.

Granted, Stewart returned to racing after his 2013 mishap and then returned again three weeks after the Ward tragedy. In a statement marking his return, Stewart had this to say:

This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with both professionally and personally. This is something that will definitely affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.

[...]

I miss my team, my teammates. I miss being back in the race car. I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time.

As hard as it may seem to believe, Stewart has not won a Sprint Cup race now in nearly 16 months, his last visit to Victory Lane coming at the site of this weekend's Cup race, Dover International Speedway.

That's the longest winless streak of his career: 33 races and counting.

And if Stewart does not break that streak in the eight remaining races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup—even though he's not a contender for the championship—he will have gone an entire season without even one win for the first time in his Cup career.

When you start thinking of those numbers and how long he's been winless, it's human nature to think a very fateful question: Is Stewart done?

And given the way the last two years have gone for him, that's a very valid question at that.

Stewart is now 43 years old. He's made 546 career starts in his Sprint Cup career, with 48 wins, 181 top-five and 296 top-10 finishes. But take 2013 and 2014 combined and, to date, he has just one win, seven top-fives and 14 top-10 finishes in 46 races.

Those are not Tony Stewart numbers. Sure, he missed more than a third of last season to injury and three races due to the Ward tragedy this season, but Stewart has had only one other season when he won just one race (2008).

What's more, he's failed to reach double digits in top-five finishes just twice in his career (nine each): ironically in 2011, when he won five races in the Chase en route to his third career Cup championship, and again the following season, when he not only failed to defend his title, but didn't even qualify for the Chase, just like this year.

Frankly, the next eight races could very likely go a long way toward determining whether Stewart may even start to entertain thoughts of retiring.

If he finds he just doesn't have it behind the wheel anymore, if the memory of Ward's death and the emotional roller coaster Stewart has ridden since then continue, it's hard not to doubt that he'll ever again be the old Tony that so many fans know and love.

Here's a bit more ammo to back that up: Thus far in 2014, his last top-five finish (of just two) was fifth place at Fontana in the fifth race of the season. In his 20 starts since then, Stewart has managed just four top-10 showings.

Draw your own conclusions from that.

It's no secret that when Stewart came back to the Sprint Cup world at the beginning of this season, he still wasn't fully recovered from last year's mangled leg.

"I'll be honest, I'll be more happy when everybody quits asking me how I feel," Stewart said after this year's season-opening Daytona 500. "I'm not 100 percent. I'm not going to be 100 percent for a while."

Yet with high-dollar sponsors like Bass Pro Shops and Mobil One, as well as more than 200 employees at Stewart-Haas Racing, significantly relying upon him, Stewart still came back—even though he probably should have taken more time to heal and recover fully.

But perhaps in his mind, being back to 80 or 90 percent is better than sitting at home doing nothing.

Stewart's idol, A.J. Foyt, could likely tell him a few things about not being able to go out on your own terms.

Foyt was nearly killed in the most serious wreck of his racing career at central Wisconsin's Road America road course in 1990. I remember that day as if it was yesterday. I was covering the race for USA Today and still can visualize how Foyt sailed off the race track in Turn 1, only to come to rest nearly upside down and with life-threatening injuries.

The brakes on Foyt's car failed, and he went straight instead of turning right at well over 100 mph. Even though Foyt was one of the most stubborn and bull-headed drivers to ever climb behind a steering wheel—regardless if it was in IndyCar, NASCAR or any other series—it's pretty clear his racing career was on short and borrowed time following Road America.

Foyt's crash came 24 years to the day before an upstate New York grand jury found Stewart innocent of any culpability in Ward's death.

Foyt would go on to compete in 10 more races, eight in 1991 and the final two of his career in 1992, finally hanging up his firesuit for good at the age of 57.

Stewart hasn't forgotten how to drive or race competitively. Had this discussion arisen prior to last year's sprint car wreck, I'd probably say he would follow Foyt's example and race well into his 50s. But with what he's gone through in the last 13-plus months, it's not unreasonable to wonder if Stewart's eventual retirement may be on an accelerated path.

Of course, he could go out and win Sunday at Dover, and maybe any thought of premature retirement would be stopped in its tracks. Not only is the Monster Mile the site of Stewart's last Cup win, his overall record there is stellar: 30 starts, three wins, 11 top-fives and 17 top-10s.

There's no question Stewart has support from his fans and some of his fellow racers.

But does he still have what it takes to go back to who he used to be behind the wheel? Does the three-time champ still have more wins and maybe even another championship or two still in him?

Or have we already seen Stewart's best?

Honestly, I hope he finds a way to go back to being the Tony of old, because there's a lot of people who still want to see the Smoke they know and love, rather than someone who is just a wisp of the old Smoke.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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