Saluting ‘Smoke’: Jeff Gordon’s touching praise of Tony Stewart before their final Indy race


INDIANAPOLIS – After introducing a litany of VIPs at the outset of Sunday’s drivers meeting, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell took the unsual step of yielding the mic.

“One of the part-time drivers wanted to come up and say a few words, so I’ll turn it over to him,” O’Donnell said.

Jeff Gordon, who is driving the No. 88 Chevrolet at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., jogged up to the podium to deliver an address to Tony Stewart, who is racing Sunday in his final Brickyard.

“I think it’s only fitting, and Tony, I know that you don’t want to be recognized,” Gordon said. “You’ve been doing an amazing job this year, and I know you want to keep it on the lowdown, but I’m sorry, buddy. We’re in your home state. You were born and raised in Indiana. You’re at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I know as we’ve gotten to know one another as friends and competitors over the years what this place means to you. I think that this is not a year about saying goodbye. It’s a year about celebrating what you’ve done on the track and off the track. I think it’s only fitting that all of us in this room and along with all the millions of fans around the world, recognize what you’ve brought to this sport. Congratulate you on all that you’ve done, on and off the track. You’re a great person, but you’re a heck of a race car driver and say thank you.”

Stewart, who has won twice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, lives in his hometown of Columbus, about an hour south of the speedway.

Gordon, who has a record five wins at the Brickyard, retired after the 2015 season, making this an unexpectedly second “final start” at the 2.5-mile track – a fact that IMS president Doug Boles made light of during his drivers meeting address.

“We’re excited to have Tony here and Jeff here,” Boles said. “Jeff’s  second last event, Tony’s first last event here at the speedway.”

Boles added, “I want you guys to have a great race, and  Kyle Busch out front is awesome, but at the end, if you guys could just move over for the 14 and the 88. Let those guys go battle it out so we can have a big Hoosier victory here at the speedway. Especially in those Chevys is kind of important for us.”

The quip brought a reply from Gordon: “Doug, way to not be biased there. I can’t wait to hear what Brad (Keselowski) has to say about that.”