Ryan: The scene around Tony Stewart’s last ride was vintage ‘Smoke’

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The receiving line to acknowledge the greatness of Tony Stewart began before the green flag Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Four hours later, it still hadn’t stopped.

After the three-time series champion and surefire NASCAR Hall of Famer climbed from his car after the finale to a Sprint Cup season and an illustrious career, a steady parade of well-wishing drivers, car owners and team members still were paying homage.

There was Joe Gibbs, who told Stewart, “Thanks, man. You helped build our deal.”

Chad Johnston, once the crew chief for Stewart and now with Kyle Larson, shared a few minutes of Indiana pride about dirt-track racing with his former driver.

Former teammate Kyle Busch stopped by to say, “It’s been awesome, man. Really appreciate all you have done for us,” and asked Stewart to save a drink for him at an upcoming Christmas party.

Jeff Gordon drew the biggest reaction.

“We going to the sand rails tonight?” Stewart said with a hearty laugh, referencing the January vacation to the dunes of Death Valley that sidelined him for the first eight races of the season with a fractured back.

“I wish,” Gordon replied. “Can we leave tomorrow morning?”

“If I break my back now, I’m not too worried about it.”

“We’re not going to do that. We’re going to have fun.”

“Damn right, we are.”

Fun was the operative word Sunday for Stewart despite a 22nd-place finish

The race ended with echoes of Dale Earnhardt at 1.5-mile tracks, where Jimmie Johnson became the third seven-time champion in NASCAR history.

But it began with another evocation of “The Intimidator,” and the significance of that symmetry was fully appreciated by the three-time champion whom many have called the modern-day version of Earnhardt.

When Stewart rolled off for the final time before a NASCAR race, a member of virtually every team had gathered along the pit lane to greet the No. 14 Chevrolet in what “Smoke” called “the best part of the day.

“It shows you what people think about you,” Stewart said. “I’ve always joked around in the garage area with crew guys, owners, crew chiefs, officials. And to see that many guys who wanted to be out there, that’s a lot.

“I think everybody knows I fight for a lot of things that a lot of people don’t want to fight for, and don’t want to speak up for, but I’m the guy who’s too dumb to not keep my mouth shut. I’ll speak up for it. I guess it shows respect.  It brought back a lot of memories when they did that with Dale Sr. when he won the Daytona 500. Truly humbling and honored.”

The farewell tour that wasn’t – Stewart demanded that NASCAR and tracks downplay his exit from NASCAR over the course of his final season – finally was sprinkled with some degree of pomp, circumstance and sentimentality Sunday. Before the race, Stewart was feted at the driver’s meeting with a standing ovation and video tribute that celebrated his fiery outbursts as much as his countless triumphs.

Despite a nondescript result, he exited his car to cheers of “Thank you, Tony! Thanks, Smoke!” from a crowd of a few dozen fans – some dressed in Chili Bowl apparel, others wearing T-shirts from Stewart’s time in IndyCar and USAC. They waved their smart phones and took selfies from the opposite side of the car from the throngs interviewing Stewart.

Perhaps some had been listening on his team’s channel when he provided last glimpse at the cantankerous force of will that made him an all-time great.

After a strategy gamble of running 60 laps on tires that wear in half that distance on the abrasive surface, the frustration multiplied in a steady stream of invective aimed at NASCAR after a late red flag. Stewart spent many of the waning laps hissing at NASCAR – “still screaming just like I would on any other race, so I was true to form all the way to the end.

“We got screwed out of about four spots on the restart when the lineup was screwed up, guys passed us on the yellow lining up, which wasn’t right.” Stewart said. “At least it’s all about consistency. (NASCAR officials) haven’t been able to get that right, and they still aren’t getting it right, so …  ahh, what the hell. It’s over.”

Of course, it isn’t over after Stewart takes his final ride (“the car doesn’t have a scratch on it”) back to his homestead in Columbus, Indiana, for safekeeping with the rest of his racing memorabilia.

His first offseason without any concern about NASCAR driving since 1999 will begin with an annual trip to Georgia for racing four-wheelers off road with friends. He hasn’t planned any races beyond that – there will be no more in 2016 – but he “isn’t going to wait long,” nor will he be restrictive about what he runs.

Dirt races are a definite. What else? Well, Ford, the new manufacturer for Stewart-Haas Racing team, has spots in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Stewart is interested in sports cars, so …

Where will you be racing, Smoke?

“Everywhere,” he said. “I’ve got to look and see what order I can do it in. Eventually, we’re going to do it all. But I’ve still got a couple of weeks of work to do as a car owner.”

Ahh, yes. Stewart has provided constant reminders throughout the season that he will remain intimately involved with NASCAR as a car owner. He expects to attend at least a dozen races next year, and you can expect he will be as outspoken as he was during his last tour (when a tirade about lug nut policies led to a new rule).

As NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton jokingly reminded during the drivers meeting, Stewart still can be summoned to the series’ hauler for reprimand when his brasher side flares – and that’s certain to happen.

“You’ve got to read between the lines,” Stewart proclaimed when asked how he viewed the incessant tributes from his peers. “A lot of these guys are sitting there so excited because they know they never have to race me again.

“It’s an honor. I’m the guy who will fight with them if I disagree with them, but at the same time, they know I’m guy that will fight for them, too.”

Stewart took one last question before ambling to the stage to congratulate Johnson on tying Earnhardt.

Would he keep fighting for his driving brethren?

“If they want me to,” he smiled.