Stewart at ease heading into final NASCAR Cup season


Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart is a man at peace as he heads into the final season of his NASCAR career.

He is satisfied with what he has accomplished and has no regrets about the three glaring holes on his resume. Stewart is also adamant that his struggles the last two years, on and off the track, have nothing to do with his decision to retire at the end of this season.

The three-time NASCAR champion reiterated Thursday he will race in other series after this year — but not the Indianapolis 500, he insisted — and his decision to leave the Sprint Cup Series is simply about giving himself more free time to pursue everything that has been on hold the last three decades.

“I’m still going to race, I just don’t know how much yet,” Stewart said. “The nice thing is I’ll have some flexibility to go do some other things I want to do.”

First up on the bucket list: He wants to attend the Formula One race in Monaco with co-owner Gene Haas, who will field an F1 team beginning this season.

But that will have to wait until 2017 because Stewart has a final farewell tour ahead of him for the next 11 months. He doesn’t want the same sendoff given to Jeff Gordon, who was feted and presented with gifts at nearly every stop on the 36-race schedule last year.

Stewart wouldn’t mind, though, having the kind of year Gordon did on the track. Gordon closed his final season by dramatically winning at Martinsville Speedway in November to clinch a berth in the final four of NASCAR’s championship race.

Although Gordon didn’t win the title, he was in the running and climbed from his car for the final time at the top of his game.

“That was 99 percent of a perfect season and I don’t have any grand illusions that I’m going to have that kind of year this year,” Stewart said. “I would love to, but what we’ve done the last two years, it may or may not be in our cards. We’re going to give 100 percent.”

Stewart has been a shell of himself the last two years. He was struggling through the 2013 season when he broke his leg in a sprint car accident and missed the final third of the NASCAR season.

His return in 2014 was a struggle, too. Aside from his failure to perform on the track, his car struck and killed a sprint car driver at a New York dirt track. Stewart wasn’t criminally charged, but the emotional toll weighed on him for months and he is still facing a lawsuit from Kevin Ward Jr.’s family.

Although 2015 was fairly drama-free, Stewart had career lows in nearly every category. He has not won a race since 2013 and he split with crew chief Chad Johnston at the end of last season.

Stewart will be paired this year with first-year crew chief Michael Bugarewicz, who was race engineer the last two seasons on Kevin Harvick’s team. Stewart is not sure how long it will take the duo to click, but he is eager to find out.

“It’s two people trying to learn each other’s language,” Stewart said. “I really like what I see in him so far, I like his drive and determination, and those are things that you can’t teach somebody.”

Stewart’s mood was good as he noted it was the final time on the preseason media tour. He declined to answer questions about an incident last weekend at the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he climbed into the stands to confront a heckler. Stewart encouraged anyone curious about the confrontation to scan social media for witness accounts of what led to the incident.

Other than that, no topic was off limits. He talked about his desire to win the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and at Kentucky Speedway — the only things missing from his resume — and acknowledged his performance has been subpar. He repeated several times that he’s too old — he turns 45 in May — to run the Indianapolis 500, but that he’s open to a lot of different opportunities beginning in November when his NASCAR career comes to a close.

“The reason I am retiring is not performance based, but when you go into your last season, you hope you go out on top,” he said. “If we went out there and ran 15 races and won the championship, it would not be, ‘Man, I want to come back next year.’

“We’re done. When Homestead happens, no matter how the year went, we’re done. If it’s a terrible year, I am not going to sit there and think that defined my career. The stats will show what we did over 18 years. No matter how the season goes, I think I’m going to be able to say I had a successful run in the Sprint Cup Series.”

Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

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