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Tony Stewart's Impact on NASCAR Will Be Felt Long After His Retirement as Driver

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2015

Tony Stewart will find reasons to smile in racing long after his retirement as a driver.
Tony Stewart will find reasons to smile in racing long after his retirement as a driver.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Tony Stewart wanted to make one thing perfectly clear in Wednesday’s news conference announcing his retirement as a Sprint Cup driver.

He’s not really retiring.

Oh, he will no longer get behind the wheel of his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet following the 2016 season. But despite his three Cup championships and 48 career wins (and possibly counting), Stewart’s greater legacy in racing when all is said and done very well could come as an owner.

“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 in the news conference. “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.”

Stewart’s decision to step down as a driver is the right one, being executed the correct way.

He hasn’t won a race since June of 2013 at Dover, and there is a very good chance he never will win another. Although he said Wednesday that he would love to check two more boxes off the driving bucket list by winning the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 next year, the reality is that his farewell season is a whole lot more likely to look like Jeff Gordon’s winless farewell tour this season than it is like 2011, the last time Stewart won a championship.

But Stewart and Gene Haas, co-owners of Stewart-Haas Racing, are defending Sprint Cup champs in the ownership department, having won last year with SHR driver Kevin Harvick. Coupled with Stewart’s 2011 title (when he went on a remarkable tear and won half of the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races after failing to win a single race all season), that gives SHR two championships in the last four years.

That’s one more than Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports, for those of you keeping score at home.

Haas admitted that he wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he brought Stewart in as an ownership partner in 2009. Haas, whose net worth in 2011 was $740 million according to multiple published reports (including Auto Week and the Sporting News), had been fielding Sprint Cup teams for seven years up to that point without much success (zero wins and only one top-five finish in 284 starts).

Stewart was a star driver at the time for Joe Gibbs Racing, where he won the first two championships of his NASCAR career. It was an established team and he was the top dog, but JGR also had just switched manufacturers from Chevrolet to Toyota the previous year, a move that no doubt left Stewart, a lifelong Chevy guy, more than a little uncomfortable. Stewart was ripe for a change, and Haas needed help, so they formed what quickly has evolved into a powerhouse partnership on the ownership side.

“All the naysayers out there kind of beat up on Tony, saying, ‘Why in the heck would you want to leave a great team and do something crazy like this?’ Even I had to have that question myself,” Haas said.

It didn’t take long, however, for Haas to realize that Stewart was more than met the naked eye. Yes, Stewart has proved over the years that he can be at turns charming and a jerk with the media. But Haas quickly recognized an acute business acumen that Stewart obviously has used to forge success in many ventures, including as owner of the historic Eldora Speedway dirt track and several championship teams in USAC and the World of Outlaws.

“In getting to know Tony Stewart the businessman, I found a very smart person with excellent people skills,” Haas said. “He’s extremely valuable to our race team and a strong voice in our sport.”

Haas boiled it down further by saying that he had  “a good foundation … a nice race shop, good relationships with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports (with whom SHR has maintained a technical alliance), all the fundamental pieces … and Tony brought the talent.” Stewart also brought sponsorship dollars and the ability to bring in more as the organization became more successful and his people skills in the business arena won people over, even as his lack of them in other areas sometimes wore others down.

The last two-plus years have not really been kind to Stewart on the track. More specifically, on the dirt tracks he once so loved to race on during downtime from the asphalt and concrete Sprint Cup wars.

He suffered a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg in a sprint car accident on a dirt track in Iowa in August 2013, causing him to miss the last 15 Sprint Cup races of that season. Then in August of last year, the sprint car he was driving on a dirt track in New York struck and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr., after Ward had exited his wrecked car and walked down the track toward Stewart’s car and others who were circling the track under caution. (Although a criminal investigation cleared Stewart of any wrongdoing and ruled it an accident, Ward’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him).

Those were both terrible incidents, and no one can blame Stewart if, in some ways perhaps even he doesn’t understand, they changed him forever. But he was adamant on Wednesday that his retirement announcement as a driver has nothing whatsoever to do with either incident.

“Zero percent. Not 1 percent of it has had anything to do with it,” he insisted.

Stewart said it was just time to hang up the helmet.  In fact, he admitted that there have been times after race lately where he “felt like a dealer at the end of my shift at a blackjack table who wanted to clap my hands and turn around and walk out of the building.” But he said he wants to race one more season to give all the fans who have supported him through thick and thin over the years one more season’s worth of opportunities to watch him climb behind the wheel, plus there is still the lingering matter of winning those couple of prestigious races that have somehow escaped him over the years.

But the more Tony talked, the more the man they call "Smoke" tried to clear the air, the more it became apparent that he’s most excited about what lies ahead for himself as an owner. And rightly so, because while he’s old for a driver at 44, he’s young for an owner, and the possibilities stretched ahead of him in that field are almost endless.

“I’m not really retiring,” he reminded again. “I’m just changing positions.”

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now write about it and other sports for Bleacher Report as well as assisting in coverage of NASCAR as a Digital Content Producer for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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