Long: The many faces, moods and sides of Tony Stewart

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KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – He’s a racer, comedian and antagonist. Equally fiery and compassionate, rebellious and reverent, Tony Stewart’s life has played before our eyes. Some things people didn’t want to see. Other things people couldn’t stop watching.

Wednesday, with cameras on him, the 44-year-old Stewart proved there is one competitor he can’t beat, the same competitor Jeff Gordon couldn’t beat or any other driver before them – time. Stewart will leave the Sprint Cup Series after the 2016 season but plans to race elsewhere and remain involved in NASCAR as an owner. Clint Bowyer takes Stewart’s ride in 2017.

“There’s still the opportunity to get fined, and there’s still the opportunity to be put on probation, just like always, just from a different capacity than now,’’ Stewart joked.

He unleashed one-liners and quips in the 50-minute session with reporters Wednesday at Stewart-Haas Racing, making the afternoon a breezy affair, unlike the decision to retire.

Stewart’s dilemma was that racing is all he’s done. He was 2 months old when his parents placed him in the seat of a go-kart. A 2-year-old Stewart puttered around on a plastic motorcycle wearing a Tupperware bowl as a helmet. A few years later, he was running circles in the family’s garage on his Big Wheel.

One winter night, Stewart’s father noticed a different sound as his son raced the Big Wheel in the garage. When Nelson Stewart turned, he saw his son leaning over and riding with one wheel off the ground.

“I thought that if that kid has got that kind of balance, he needs to be in a race car,’’ Nelson Stewart said years later.

So began Tony Stewart’s career.

Next year, his Sprint Cup career will end.

“You run through the range of emotions,’’ Stewart said of deciding when to retire. “There’s days you’re like, I can’t wait, and then there’s days that are like, man, do I …  you battle back and forth.’’

As one ponders the future – Stewart considered retiring after this season before pushing it back a year – it’s also time to reflect upon the past. Stewart’s is a mix of spectacular highlights and stunning lowlights.

“I think there’s things that I would like to have skipped in my life and things that have not happened, but I think everything in the big picture has happened for a reason and is part of something that’s a lot bigger than what we are in this room,’’ he said.

Only four men have won more NASCAR Sprint Cup championships than Stewart’s three. Each title marked change. His first crown in 2002 came amid controversy from striking a photographer earlier that season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His sponsor fined him $50,000 and nearly severed ties with Stewart.

His 2005 championship was a celebration of his team, giving his crew a title without as much of the rancor that surrounded the first crown.

His final title in 2011, which he calls his most gratifying accomplishment, reminded all of his talent. After going winless in the first 26 races, he won five of the 10 Chase races to win the championship in a tiebreaker against Carl Edwards. The crown came despite telling crew chief Darian Grubb midway through the Chase that Grubb would not be back with the team the following year.

When Stewart leaves next year, gone will be the competitor whose attitude most resembled that of Dale Earnhardt. Stewart’s kindness and surliness are unquestioned, whether directed toward competitors, NASCAR, media or others.

Five years after Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500, Stewart called for NASCAR to end bump drafting, saying that “somebody is going to die at Daytona or Talladega” unless the practice was stopped. The words were profound coming from Stewart. He had crashed earlier in the 2001 Daytona, suffering a concussion and sore ribs, and was in the emergency room when Earnhardt was brought to Halifax Health Medical Center after his fatal accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Two days after Stewart’s comments, NASCAR stated it would penalize excessive bump drafting. A few days after that, NASCAR penalized Stewart for running Matt Kenseth into the grass and causing Kenseth to crash. It was a move made in retaliation for one Kenseth made on Stewart earlier in the race.

One of Stewart’s most memorable rants came after finishing second in Atlanta in 2008. He exited his car and blasted Goodyear, saying: “This is the worst tire I’ve been on in my life. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is dismounting anything that has Goodyear on it and putting Firestone or something else on it so I feel a lot safer.’’

Eventually, the two sides reconnected.

Stewart has had his share of run-ins with several competitors through the years, including tossing a helmet at Kenseth’s car in 2012 at Bristol, reportedly striking Kurt Busch in the NASCAR hauler in 2008 at Daytona, and throwing his heat shields at Kenny Irwin’s car and climbing partially into the vehicle as Irwin drove by after an incident at Martinsville in 1999.

Irwin died the following season in a crash during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Stewart won the race that weekend and gave the trophy to Irwin’s parents a few days later, a gesture that all but made Irwin’s mother speechless years later as she tried to talk about it.

Stewart’s charity extended to others in the sport. His foundation pledged $1 million to the Victory Junction Gang Camp in 2003. He often has flown friends or family members to be with injured drivers. He most recently flew members of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson’s family to Pennsylvania after Wilson’s accident at Pocono in August. Wilson died the day after the accident.

Through the years, Stewart has touched those in racing in many ways. Some will look upon him favorably, others will not. Some will see only the recent struggles – a broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash in 2013 and his involvement in a fatal sprint car incident last year that has spawned a wrongful death lawsuit. Stewart said his recent struggles on and off the track played no role in his decision to leave Cup after next year.

Now, 44 races remain in Stewart’s career with eight this season and 36 next year. He has one more chance to win an elusive Daytona 500 and Southern 500, then his Cup career will be finished.

For all that Stewart has done, he might be best recalled as the late Crocky Wright did. A former midget racer, Wright easily recalled the first time he saw Stewart race a three-quarter midget. It was July 18, 1989.

“He was just a flash back to the old days the way he was driving,’’ Wright once said. “The way they go up on the rail on the fence all around. Today, most of them hug the inside pole. But he was right up there on the fence. I just knew he was going to be a great driver.’’

Each July 18 until he died in 2009, Wright used to purchase a cake to commemorate seeing Stewart race.

Now, there is only one more July 18 before the end of Stewart’s Cup career.