AP Auto Racing Writer
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — Saying it was time for a change, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart announced Wednesday that he will retire from Sprint Cup racing following the 2016 season.
Smiling and appearing at ease at the Stewart-Haas Racing shop in North Carolina, Stewart said the decision was “100 percent” his choice.
“There wasn’t any pressure from anybody,” Stewart said. “If anything, it was the opposite. I know people were trying to talk me out of it. It’s a scenario where everybody in their career makes the decision that it’s time for a change.”
Stewart, who deeply loves dirt track racing, isn’t getting out of the car for good, though.
“I am still going to race,” he said. “I am not retiring from racing, just the Sprint Cup Series.”
Stewart, who said a year ago he wasn’t sure if he’d ever run a sprint car race again, indicated Wednesday a return to his roots is in his future.
“Maybe. Probably,” he said when asked if he’ll get back in a sprint car.
His planned departure is not a surprise. Stewart will be 45 next season, hasn’t won a race in over two years and has been privately working on finding a successor for the No. 14 Chevrolet all year.
Clint Bowyer, released from his contract with Michael Waltrip Racing because the team is folding at the end of the season, will replace Stewart in the No. 14 in 2017. Bowyer has been looking for a one-year deal for next season as a stopgap while Stewart runs his 18th and final Cup season. SHR also fields cars for reigning series champion Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.
The last three years have been trying for Stewart. He struck and killed sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a 2014 race in New York and he missed the final third of the 2013 season with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash. His passion for NASCAR racing has also waned in the last several seasons, in part because of an evolving rules package that he has struggled with. He is currently 25th in the points standings and failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the third consecutive year.
Stewart told AP in June that his confidence was shot and he was struggling to find any enjoyment in being in the race car.
“I think deep down, you know when it’s time to do something different,” Stewart said Wednesday.
Stewart said the fatal incident with Ward and his comeback from injuries played no role in his decision.
Kevin Harvick, who was lured to Stewart-Haas Racing by Stewart and won his first Cup title last season, admitted he’s still coming to terms with Stewart’s decision.
“As the world learns about Tony retiring today, I have to admit I’ve known about this for a while and really struggled to put my arms around what I think about it,” Harvick posted on social media. “I’ve seen Tony as my driver, my boss and my friend. But in the end I want to see him smile and be happy in his life. Tony has done a great deal for not only my family, but the sport that we all love.”
Stewart, who moved from IndyCar to NASCAR and got his break in 1999 with Joe Gibbs Racing, is the second star in two years to call it quits. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon will retire at the end of this season.
“The great thing is, I’m not going anywhere,” Stewart said. “NASCAR’s 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 an opportunity to get fined. There’s still an opportunity to get on probation, just like always.”