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.

Martin Truex Jr.: VHT ‘a huge factor’ in Coca-Cola 600 — but wouldn’t work as well elsewhere

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CONCORD, N.C. — Though the rain paid a visit to the Coca-Cola 600, the traction agent applied high in the corners of Charlotte Motor Speedway was a “huge factor” in NASCAR’s longest race, according to Martin Truex Jr.

Truex, who led a race high 233 laps, lauded the VHT chemical used to improve racing at the 1.5-mile track after a dud of an All-Star Race.

“I think last weekend the middle groove, middle to high middle, was nonexistent,” Truex said after finishing third early Monday morning. “It was the slickest part of the racetrack.”

But that changed Sunday. Following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, NASCAR and the track reapplied refresh coats of VHT to the upper grooves in the turns after consulting drivers and crew chiefs. Even after a downpour swept over the track on Lap 143, Truex said the traction compound was a factor for 375 of the race’s 400 laps.

“It was the main groove,” Truex said of the higher grooves. “Where typically there is the least grip (there) on this racetrack, it was the most tonight. It definitely played a factor. It changed the race quite a bit. I think the downforce rules this year changed it quite a bit as well. The bottom of the racetrack is so bumpy and so slick, I’m telling you after 10 laps it’s all you can do to make laps without crashing down there.

“It definitely changed the race tonight. It made it a lot of fun. I thought it was a good addition.”

Winner Austin Dillon thought the VHT – also known as PJ1 TrackBite – benefited the race. But the Richard Childress Racing drive would like to see a change in where the agent is applied to the track surface.

“The middle groove had a lot of speed, took away from the bottom,” Dillon said. That’s usually dominant here. The bottom got good again. After the rain, the bottom was pretty dominant. As the race went on, I could actually see the VHT leaving the track. It was getting clean higher and higher.

“We’ve got something there as far as trying it. It’s not a bad thing. I really think we should try it more often. I think the next thing you look into is the placement of it. I feel like we needed more on the very top because the middle was really dominant, but you couldn’t really get into the top of it like you needed to. That would be my next shot at it. It’s not a bad thing at all. I like it.”

What’s next?

The chemical has been used on the concrete high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway and the asphalt of Charlotte and been mostly praised.

Should it be tried at any other tracks on the NASCAR circuit?

“I don’t think so,” Truex said. “I think this track is so unique, the pavement here, the geometry of the racetrack, the bumps that are in it. It’s almost got a concrete feel the way the bumps are. They’re really, really small, high‑frequency bumps, almost like a washboard, kind of the feeling you get at Dover (International Speedway). Most asphalt tracks are not bumpy that way. They’re more of a swell. The car kind of goes through swells, a place like (Chicagoland Speedway) or Atlanta (Motor Speedway).

“It’s very, very different here. The pavement is different than anywhere we go. The bumps in the racetrack are way different than anywhere we go. I think both of those things kind of contribute to us needing to do some different things here to change-up the racing.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends Kyle Busch’s surly mood after the Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. – A second-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 left Kyle Busch in an irate mood, which is perfectly fine, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A seemingly agitated Busch, cupping his face in his hands after sitting down, entered the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway Center shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday. It was roughly 10 minutes after Austin Dillon scored the first victory of his career in NASCAR’s premier series by stretching his final tank of fuel for 70 laps.

Was Busch surprised that Dillon made the checkered flag? What did it mean for a driver to get his first win?

“I’m not surprised about anything,” Busch snapped. “Congratulations.”

He dropped the mic on the dais. There were no further questions. (The video is available above).

Shortly afterward on Twitter, Earnhardt took up for his peer (whom he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008).

Busch, who hasn’t won since last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (a span of 28 races) gave more elaborate answers shortly after exiting his No. 18 Toyota, which finished 0.835 seconds behind Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.

He apparently didn’t realize until late in the race that his pass of Martin Truex Jr. (who led a race-high 233 laps) with a lap remaining was for second instead of the victory.

“This M&M’s Camry was awesome tonight,” Busch said. “It was just super fast. I mean we had one of the fastest cars all night long and then (Truex) was probably the fastest. There at the end, somehow we ran him down. You know he got a straightaway out on us, but there that last 100 laps we were able to get back to him and pass him so you know that was promising for us there at the end in order to get a second-place finish, but man just so, so disappointed.

“I don’t know. We ran our own race. We did what we needed to do and it wasn’t – it wasn’t the right game. We come up short and finish second.

“It’s a frustrating night, man. There’s nothing we could’ve done different.”

Others took a different view of Busch’s tirade.

But some agreed with Earnhardt’s stance.

After defending Busch, Earnhardt also poked some fun at him later Monday, too.

 

Martin Truex Jr. takes Cup points lead after Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. took over the Cup points lead with a third-place finish in Saturday’s Coca-Cola 600.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, who led a race-high 233 laps, also extended his lead in the playoff standings by winning the second stage and bringing his total to 16 points.

Kyle Larson, who had led the standings for eight consecutive races since Phoenix International Raceway, fell to second in the rankings after crashing and finishing a season-worst 33rd. Larson trails Truex by five points in the race for the regular-season championship (and 15 playoff points).

Click here for the points standings after Charlotte.

Results, stats for the 58th annual Coca-Cola 600

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With a fuel gamble, Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 for his first NASCAR Cup win.

It comes in his 133rd start and is the second win for Richard Childress Racing this year.

Following him was Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

Click here for the full results.