CHARLOTTE — Tony Stewart is done, through and had it. Eight weeks from the end of his acclaimed Sprint Cup driving career, Stewart says he’s looking forward to retiring from the series, ready to leave behind the battles off the track, in the garage and behind closed doors. Soon it will be someone else’s problem.
The man described by competitors as the sheriff of the garage is not sure.
“I can sit here,’’ Stewart says, grabbing his phone in a conference room with reporters on the eighth floor of 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.
“When you’re not getting (NASCAR’s) attention … you’re like ‘OK, now I’ve got to go a different way to get their attention to do something about it and that’s when I normally get slapped on the hand with a fine or this or that.
“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?’ ’’
Stewart’s actions throughout his career have endeared the three-time series champion to fans and enraged others. Same with series officials.
His passion is unquestioned, his honesty unfiltered and his approach unrelenting.
Stewart started his final Cup season questioning NASCAR Chairman Brian France’s approach, saying that France needed to be at more races and also attend a Sprint Cup Drivers Council meeting. Stewart also acknowledged that France reprimanded him in August 2015 for speaking his mind too often in public.
NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 in April, a day after his rant about loose wheels and comments questioning NASCAR’s commitment to safety. NASCAR soon responded by checking the lug nuts on each car after each race and issuing penalties to teams that had any missing. Later that week, France attended his first Sprint Cup Drivers Council meeting.
Despite his complaints, Stewart has praised NASCAR for its work with the drivers in creating the Sprint Cup Drivers Council and the dialogue that occurs in those closed-door meetings.
Still, that doesn’t take away Stewart’s frustration on some matters.
“One thing that I’ve learned in this sport, and I learned it from Mike Helton a long time ago, there are times when I know beyond a shadow of a doubt what I’m complaining about or what I’m feeling is 100 percent right on the money,’’ Stewart said Wednesday. “But I’ve also learned with that, yeah, I’m right but in the big picture there’s still a reason it’s not getting changed or not going the direction it should go because it’s part of a bigger picture that has to be in sync with each other. That’s where you get frustrated and that’s where you get exhausted fighting the fight.
“The deal after Chicago is a perfect example of that,’’ Stewart continued, noting NASCAR’s decision not to penalize the teams of Martin Truex Jr., and Jimmie Johnson after their cars failed the Laser Inspection Station, and the decision to eliminate the P2 and P3 penalties associated with the post-race LIS inspection.
“We all know how screwed up that is. But there’s a reason that they’ve had to do the things that they do. After talking to them about it, it’s like yeah, what they came up with I agree is the best solution. Do I agree with the solution? Not necessarily. But I know that of the options they had that was the best solution at this point. It’s hard.’’
Harder than the challenge he faces at Dover International Speedway this weekend. Stewart is 11 points out of a transfer spot, heading into the race that will eliminate four of the 16 drivers in the Chase.
“We’re fighting a very steep uphill battle,’’ Stewart said. “We’ve just got to go do the best we can this weekend. Whatever happens happens. I can’t make something happen that may or may not happen. You don’t want to wish bad luck on anybody else to begin with because it’s not right. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. You hope when it’s over you did our job.’’
Stewart says he should know once practice begins what he’ll have with his car for Sunday. That’s another frustration for Stewart, who has been in Cup since 1999, and a sign of how things have changed in the sport.
“We’re in an era now in the sport where technology has taken over so much,’’ Stewart said. “I remember when we started in ’99 you could sit there and be terrible on Friday, terrible on Saturday and (Greg Zipadelli, then his crew chief) could sit there with his ouija board inside his wire pyramid overnight with candles burning and a seance going on and actually put something together and win races. You can’t do that nowadays.
“Yeah, you can make it better, but you’ve got what you’ve got. When we come off the truck, we fight the same thing for three days. There’s nothing I can do to fix it. That’s what is so frustrating for me as a driver. That’s part of why I’m ready to do something different because I can’t make a difference anymore.
“I can’t do different things with my feet, do different things with my hands, run a different line and fix the problem. I used to be able to do that. I can’t do that anymore. You get so frustrated that you can’t see straight.’’
Asked if anything from a rules perspective can lessen that, Stewart says: “I’ve been fighting that fight forever bud and it’s not something I’m willing to go into depth on but it’s another reason I’m ready to exit. You can only beat the drum for so long. It can only fall on deaf ears for so long before you finally say, ‘OK the people that need to make it better can’t make it better.’ ’’
Even with all the frustrations Stewart feels, he’s still looking forward to the final eight races of his Cup career.
“I’m not ready for it to be done. Am I excited about what I’m doing next year? Yes,’’ said Stewart, who plans to run at least 40-50 races next year, mainly on dirt tracks. “Am I still excited about the eight weeks that I have? Yeah. I’m still pretty excited about it. I still have got eight more weeks that I get to race with (crew chief Mike Bugarewicz) and I get to race with my guys. I still get to drive a pretty cool race car each week in a pretty cool series. I’m going to enjoy these last eight weeks.
“No matter what happens this weekend, am I going to be upset if I don’t make it to the next round? Yeah, absolutely. That’s natural. That’s what a competitor should be like. If we don’t, it’s not the end of my year. I’ve got seven more weekends after this weekend to do the best I can and try to get another win and finish on a high note.’’