Long: Tony Stewart set to go on road to nowhere after Homestead

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There will be a hint of sadness when Tony Stewart exits his Sprint Cup car for the final time Sunday night, but those feelings will belong to his fans not Stewart.

He’ll feel relief.

Beaten by bureaucracy and suffocated by success, Stewart is ready to leave NASCAR and all its rules behind. No longer will he be the voice of the garage, a position inherited from Dale Earnhardt and bequeathed to Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and others willing to challenge the sport’s leadership.

Now Stewart can have fun.

When he looks ahead to the dirt track racing he’ll do in 2017, his eyes brighten in a way they rarely have the last few years. NASCAR was his job — a well-paying job with career winnings of more than $122 million entering this season — but it was a job.

He often wanted to be driving to a dirt track in the middle of nowhere, plopping out of the truck in shorts and a T-shirt, climbing into a sprint car that sent him sliding through the corners and finishing the night with a beer in hand, more in the cooler and BSing with the same competitors he’d covered in a rooster tail of dirt.

Then he would head to the next track to do it again.

Thing is, Stewart was too good for that nomadic lifestyle where the highlight is finding a good diner at 3 a.m.

23 Mar 1997: Tony Stewart and John Menard enjoying the Dura-Lube 200 Indy Racing League at the Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona.
Tony Stewart in March 1997 during a break in an Indy Racing League event at Phoenix (Getty Images).

He was talented enough that he didn’t need to approach car owners with money for rides. The best teams wanted him. Many observers called Stewart a wheelman, one of the highest compliments a racer can receive. 

They wanted him in IndyCar and NASCAR. He found his way to NASCAR after a recruitment that a high school football star could appreciate.

Baby-faced and thin, Stewart tried to rein his temper in NASCAR but couldn’t. It grew as his success and appetite for pizzas and Coke did. He became the sport’s rabble-rouser and its conscience. There’s always at least one. Before him it was Earnhardt.

That’s not to say Stewart was Earnhardt. It’s just that Stewart was the closest thing to the seven-time champion in attitude. Stewart was the one most likely to speak up when he didn’t feel NASCAR gave drivers the proper respect.

Five years after Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500, Stewart voiced his anger at NASCAR in a sharp rebuke. Incensed at the bump drafting in a preliminary race at Daytona, Stewart said that “we’re probably going to kill somebody’’ with that type of racing and added “it could be me. It could be Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. It could be anybody out there.’’

The comments were dramatic even when one didn’t consider the backdrop, but drivers supported Stewart. Less than 48 hours later, NASCAR said it would further police bump drafting.

Even now, Stewart can tug at NASCAR, questioning its methods and incurring change.

DALLAS - AUGUST 17: NASCAR chairman Brian France and Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet during the 2011 Schedule Announcement Party at House of Blues on August 17, 2010 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
NASCAR Chairman Brian France and Tony Stewart in 2010 at a Texas Motor Speedway appearance. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for TMS)

Before the season, Stewart chastised NASCAR Chairman Brian France for not having attended a Sprint Cup Drivers Council meeting. France went to one a few months later.

Stewart challenged NASCAR in April on safety when it allowed teams to tighten fewer than five lug nuts per wheel, leading to a spat of loose wheels. NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 the next day and changed the rule five days later.

Stewart can be most effective or annoying at such moments, but he admitted in September that he’s tired of fighting NASCAR.

“I can sit here,’’ Stewart said, grabbing his phone in a conference room with reporters in the NASCAR Plaza, “and I can pull up stuff on this phone that would make you cringe about the sport that drivers talk about.

“There’s 39 of these guys that 99 out of 100 times won’t say a thing about it to you guys or to NASCAR or anybody else. I’m the one guy that most of the time will go, ‘Man this is a bad thing to talk about, I shouldn’t talk about it,’ but I’ll get pissed off enough about it to talk about it because I believe it’s worth talking about.

“That’s part of the reason I’m retiring because I’m tired of being responsible for it. It’s somebody else’s responsibility now. I’ve had my fill of it. I’ve had my fill of fighting the fight. At some point, you say, ‘Why do I keep fighting this fight when I’m not getting anywhere?’ ’’

Don’t be confused. That hard exterior hides a softer side. Stewart often is among the first to check in when someone in the sport is hurt or in need. It could be a Facebook message, text or a call. He’s offered his plane countless times to families of injured drivers so they can get to the hospital as soon as possible. After Bryan Clauson, an open-wheel driver, died in a crash this year, Stewart paid more than $30,000 at a charity auction for one of Clauson’s helmets and then gave the helmet to Clauson’s fiancee.

“I think that in front of everybody he’s plays his hard shell tough guy and wants everybody to sort of be weary … of him, but behind closed doors he is a bit more of a teddy bear than I think people know,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

DOVER, DE - JUNE 01: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet, talks to Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 1, 2012 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tony Stewart talks to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Dover International Speedway on June 1, 2012 . (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. share a bond, a reverence for racing. Earnhardt embraces NASCAR’s past, and Stewart respects the hard-scrabble life drivers had before him. Earnhardt has his collection of racing artifacts from cars to magazines; Stewart’s prized possessions include more than 200 racing helmets.

Earnhardt and Stewart share more than a respect of racing’s history.

They share Feb. 18, 2001.

Stewart’s car tumbled down the backstretch that day in the Daytona 500, sending him to nearby Halifax Medical Center. He suffered a concussion and bruises.

After X-rays and a CT scan, Stewart was wheeled into a room where doctors tried revive another patient.

It was Dale Earnhardt.

Stewart was quickly moved to another room. He found out the fate of one of the sport’s biggest stars before NASCAR’s Mike Helton told fans “we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.’’

On a day that Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost his father, Stewart lost a hero.

Stewart has experienced loss often. Less than a year earlier, the death of a rival shook Stewart. He had raced Kenny Irwin throughout dirt tracks in the Midwest. They became rivals. At times heated. That carried over to when they both raced in the Sprint Cup level. Stewart memorably threw his heel guards and leaned into Irwin’s car as it slowly drove by after Irwin punted Stewart into the wall at Martinsville.

Irwin died in a crash July 7, 2000, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Stewart won the Cup race two days later. He gave Irwin’s parents the trophy. Years later, Irwin’s mother cried, when she recounted Stewart’s generosity.

Another driver’s death affected Stewart in a different way. Competing in a sprint car event the night before the 2014 Watkins Glen race, Stewart ran side-by-side with Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old New York racer. Ward’s car bounced off the guardrail and spun. He climbed from his car and walked down the track to gesture at Stewart when Stewart’s car struck him. Ward was pronounced dead 45 minutes later.

HAMPTON, GA - AUGUST 29: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1 Chevrolet, speaks to the media prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 29, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. Stewart hit and killed sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt track race August 9, after Ward Jr. had exited his car. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Tony Stewart speaks to the media at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 29, 2014, in his return to racing after his involvement in a fatal sprint car crash. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Stewart says it was an accident.

After hearing from about two dozen witnesses, a grand jury needed less than an hour to decide not to charge Stewart for Ward’s death. Nearly a year after the accident, Ward’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Stewart. The case has yet to go to trial.

Stewart sat out three Cup events after Ward’s death before returning to the driver’s seat.

“It’s not something that goes away,’’ Stewart said six weeks after the incident. “It will never go away. It’s always going to be part of my life the rest of my life.’’

That Stewart returned to racing is no surprise. Racing has been all he has known. He was 2 months old when his parents put his baby carrier in the seat of a go-kart. At age 2, he placed a tupperware bowl on his head for a helmet and scooted throughout the house on his plastic motorcycle. By age 5, he was circling the garage in his Big Wheel.

Racing was with Stewart even as he slept.

“I dreamed about winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the Knoxville Nationals,’’ he once said. “You name it, I wanted to win every big race in every big division.’’

His NASCAR career will end without a Daytona 500 win. He never won an Indianapolis 500, either, but he won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway twice. He’s never won the Knoxville Nationals as a driver but has won it 10 times as an owner since 2001.

What he has won is 49 Cup races — including one this year at Sonoma Raceway — and three championships.

No period marked Stewart’s greatness like the 2011 Chase. He entered winless and grumpy, saying a few days before the playoffs began he didn’t think he had a chance to win it. Then he won five of the 10 Chase races, dueling Carl Edwards on and off the track.

After his Martinsville win, Stewart said in victory lane: “(Edwards) better be worried. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.’’

Stewart said more the following week when he won at Texas. Edwards finished second. After his press conference, Edwards doodled a goatee on Stewart’s face on a poster. Stewart saw it and was told Edwards was responsible. Stewart responded by writing a message to Edwards on the poster: “Told you so.’’

Stewart’s pestering continued in a press conference three days before the season finale. Edwards tried to match Stewart but couldn’t. When things are going well, few can banter as well as Stewart.

He can be just as entertaining on the radio. One of his favorite phrases to say on the team’s radio was “Here kitty, kitty, kitty” as he closed on the leader. When he had to pit early in that 2011 Homestead finale after running over debris and falling to 40th, he calmly told his crew: “They’re going to feel like (crap) when we kick their ass after this.’’

Such boasts have not been heard on the radio in recent years, as Stewart’s triumphs declined.

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 13: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet, walks on stage during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 13, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Tony Stewart walks on stage during driver introductions at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 13, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

A frustrating 2013 ended that August when he suffered a broken leg in a sprint car crash, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. The following year saw more struggles before his incident with Ward.

Last season, Stewart scored a career-low three top-10 finishes. He missed the first eight races of this year because of a back injury suffered in a sand dunes injury in January. Even with this year’s win at Sonoma, he enters his final Sprint Cup Series race with nearly as many finishes of 30th or worse (seven) as top-10 results (eight).

Stewart will not leave as the same driver who won Sprint Cup Series titles in 2002, ’05 and ’11 but few ever leave as they enter.

When he arrived, he was swarmed by fans and media as the sport’s hot rookie who drove for car owner Joe Gibbs. Stewart later said there’s no manual on how to adjust to the sport’s demands and admitted he failed to handle those at times. Some fans who liked his brash style, soon tired of his antics and cheers turned to boos.

While there remain those who will never root for Stewart, the cheers have grown louder these final weeks in the series. His teammate, Kevin Harvick, recently decried that Stewart wasn’t receiving the accolades he deserved in his final appearances at tracks.

Stewart, though, did not want the tributes Gordon received last year and Dale Earnhardt surely would have had. Stewart has rebuffed many attempts to honor him.

Stewart didn’t want pity. He wanted cheers when he deserved them, as he did at Sonoma.

Most of all, Stewart just wanted to race. That’s all he’s ever wanted to do.

NASCAR America: Chase Elliott ‘biggest surprise’ of Cup playoffs

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Only two drivers are safely in the third round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski secured spots through their wins at Charlotte and Talladega.

That leaves six spots to be decided Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

NASCAR America analysts Parker Kligerman and Kyle Petty broke down the drivers competing for spots. Both of them agreed that Chase Elliott, who has finished in second in three of the five playoff races, has a great chance to make it all the way to the championship race in Miami.

“If Talladega had played out, he was either going to be in victory lane or in the top two or three,” Petty said. “When you look at that, he has had the most solid playoffs of any driver out there. We keep talking about the big three: Larson, Busch and Truex. This guy is a sleeper. But he’s my No. 4.”

Said Kligerman: “He’s been the biggest surprise. That 24 team has been incredible through the playoffs. One thing I’ve noticed about that team, just speaking to (crew chief) Alan Gustafson, speaking to Chase, it’s almost as if they want that first win more than they care about the playoffs.”

Watch the above video for more on the playoff drivers.

Friday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Kansas Speedway

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Things get started today for the pivotal weekend at Kansas Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have its elimination race in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, where four of the 12 remaining playoff drivers will not advance to the Round of 8.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series begins its Round of 8 with Saturday’s Kansas 300.

But it all begins today, as Cup has its first practice (the other two are Saturday) and qualifying, while the Xfinity Series will have its two practice sessions.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up:

(All times are Eastern)

10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

12 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

1 – 2:25 p.m. — First Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

2:30 – 3:25 p.m. First Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

5 – 5:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

6:15 p.m. – Cup qualifying (multi-vehicle, 3 rounds) (NBCSN, MRN)

NASCAR: Will Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch advance in playoffs?

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The last two drivers to win NASCAR Cup titles are in precarious positions ahead of the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Kyle Busch, the 2015 champion, is outside the top eight in ninth. He sits seven points behind defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman debated who they think had the best chance to advance to the Third round after Sunday.

Petty put his money behind Busch, who has finished in the top five in each of his last five starts at the 1.5-mile track.

“He’s one of the big three: Truex, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson,” Petty said. “I don’t see where these (last) two races (Charlotte, Talladega) have changed anything. The one thing Kyle Busch brings into Kansas City … he brings speed. These guys have had speed all year-long.”

Johnson on the other hand has produced only four top fives all season and just one since he won at Dover in June.

But Kligerman explained why he thinks the seven-time champion will prevail on Sunday.

“Jimmie Johnson knows how to pass and that is what has become evident throughout this season,” Kligerman said. “No, they have not had the fastest cars at Hendrick Motorsports. No, they have not qualified well. They’ve actually been sort of abysmal at qualifying of late.

“… He has three wins this year. Two of those he started at the back.”

Watch the video for more.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez’ racing roots

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut.

On the show:

  • We’ll debate which past Cup Series champion will advance to the Round of 8. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson currently leads 2015 champ Kyle Busch by only seven points for the final transfer spot. Who has the edge going into Kansas this Sunday? This elimination race will be a heated competition just to finish above the cut line. Log on to NBCSports.com/NASCARVote and weigh in!
  • Xfinity Series playoff driver Daniel Hemric calls into the show to talk about his chances of advancing to the championship four in Miami. He’ll also describe his experience being one of the four drivers to participate in the recent tire test at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval.”
  • We take a look at the Daniel Suarez’s Racing Roots and discuss his transition from Xfinity Series champion to Monster Energy Cup Series rookie.
  • Parker Kligerman hops into the iRacing simulator to preview Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas, as well as the Formula 1 race in Austin, Texas.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.