By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — His race team built him a car fitting for the baddest man on wheels. Tony Stewart will take his final NASCAR ride in a tribute Chevrolet signed by every team member, the hood emblazoned with photos from his championship years and the slogan, “Always a Racer, Forever a Champion.”
His helmet? Well, that was something special. It’s a weathered throwback that looks as if it has been hanging in a barn on his Indiana farm for decades.
It appeared rusted, said “Smoke. Unlimited Speed,” and was a gritty symbol of one of the last true racers.
Stewart will retire from NASCAR competition Sunday after nearly two decades on the hamster wheel. His years were spent winning races, battling authority and speaking his mind, even when the topic was unpopular, and when no one else had the guts.
He’s brash, boorish and a beast in a race car.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever really had someone like him come into this series,” said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, himself a recent retiree.
And that’s partly why he’s leaving. He’s 45 and his heart has never been fully into NASCAR. This series pays the bills and gives him the resources for his passion. Racing on the dirt or on weeknights at the grassroots level.
Stewart owns race tracks, teams, a sprint car series and he’s part-owner of NASCAR’s elite Stewart-Haas Racing. So he’s not really going anywhere, really. He’ll be at NASCAR events on behalf of SHR and its driver lineup and sponsors.
The rest of the time? He’ll be racing.
Stewart has big ideas of racing all over the country next year at the tracks where he feels most at home. That’s where he came from, and he’s always longed to return.
His love of sprint cars possibly accelerated his retirement and played heavily into a long string of personal tragedies. Friends Jason Leffler and Bryan Clauson died in accidents, Stewart badly broke his leg in a 2013 crash, his car struck and killed a competitor that had walked onto the racing surface to confront him. The family of Kevin Ward Jr. has filed a civil suit against Stewart that is pending.
Those closest to Stewart know what an emotional toll the last several years have taken on him, and they understand his desire to finally just be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to do it. In the month after Ward’s death, Stewart said he’d probably never race a sprint car again.
Now, he’s lining up as many events as he can.
He did not want a retirement tour, and he did not want every week to turn into a celebration of the driver most relatable to fans for his blue collar upbringing and his tendencies like an old A.J. Foyt or Dale Earnhardt Sr.
His resume is stacked, three NASCAR championships and one IndyCar title. But it also has two glaring holes: Stewart never won the Daytona 500 or his beloved Indianapolis 500. Earlier this week, the winningest car owner ever at Indy said his biggest regret is that Stewart never drove for Roger Penske in the 500.
“He brought such emotion and class to the sport and competitiveness,” Penske said.
That fiery side has led to dustups on and off the track. He’s never backed down from a confrontation, and his acid-tongue and sharp wit make it impossible for anyone to win an argument.
“If Tony hasn’t come after you, then you’re not doing something right,” said one-time teammate Kyle Busch.
Stewart has taken great steps to make this final weekend as low-key as possible. He did one news conference and turned down all interview requests, even to those he never declines.
Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, to take as much emotion as possible out of these last few days. But he’s clearly reflected on his time, and knows who he is and what’s ahead.
“It’s been a fun 18 years. Not every part of it has been fun. I’ve always said what was on my mind whether it was popular or unpopular. I always fought for what I believed in, whether it was safety for other drivers or something etiquette that was going on on the race track or whatever. I can sleep alright knowing that is why I did it.
“It wasn’t because I was trying to be a jerk or something like that, I just always spoke my mind and fought for what I believed in.”
He’s not another Foyt or Earnhardt or Allison. Tony Stewart is simply Tony Stewart.