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Smoke, Out: Tony Stewart Takes the Final Turn

The 2016 NASCAR season will be Tony Stewart's last behind the wheel. He'll leave the sport the same way he helped define it—by doing it just the way he wants to.
October 1, 2015, 7:33pm
Photo by Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

"You can save your gifts," Stewart told the assembled media on Wednesday, shortly after officially announcing that 2016 will be his last season in the Sprint Cup Series. "I've got enough rocking chairs at home as it is. I bought those when I wanted to go sit on my own rocking chair. You don't have to give me one."

Whether or not the man they call Smoke will actually be able to prevent each week from becoming a farewell spectacle remains to be seen. Jeff Gordon expressed similar sentiment back in January about avoiding a "retirement tour," and yet, as one of the most important figures NASCAR has known, he has been greeted every week with the pomp and circumstance—and, yes, parting gifts.

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While Stewart has also had a profound impact and influence on the sport, he may actually succeed in keeping the pageantry to a minimum on his farewell tour. Even as they've shared the track for fifteen years, Gordon and Stewart have always represented different sides of the sport. Gordon mastered the talk show circuit, hosted Saturday Night Live, and carried a good ol' boy's sport to Madison Avenue in a way that no one imagined was possible. Stewart focused his energy, and his resources, on racing's grassroots, running teams, promoting events, and rarely spending a moment away from the track. The contrast is clear even in their post-retirement blueprint. While Gordon will step into the broadcast booth to call races for Fox Sports, Stewart will simply move from behind the wheel to, well, somewhere else, in his continuing role as owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

"I have no idea where I'm supposed to be yet," Stewart joked. "I've got a whole year to figure that out."

Tony Stewart, manifested here in Chevrolet Form. — Photo by Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The driver who will climb into Stewart's #14 Chevrolet, Clint Bowyer, is available immediately, as his Michael Waltrip Racing team closes its doors at year's end. Stewart, who historically has had even less use for the media than he has for rocking chairs, may have relished the chance to step away without any grand production. In fact, his decision to announce this final season—whether it's a retirement tour, a farewell circuit, or just one last opportunity to move some merchandise—might not have happened were it not for Gordon's own example.

"To be perfectly honest, there was a really good possibility that this would have happened at the end of this year," Stewart said. "I've seen and been able to follow what Jeff has done this year and see how much it's meant to the fans to watch him race and have the knowledge and knowing that it's their last year to watch him. That's important to me to be able to do this for our fans that have stuck with us through thick and thin and supported us."

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It's also important to the sport, because a quiet ending would be antithetical to a career that's always been uniquely noisy. Stewart came over from the world of IndyCar—a transition that no one has mastered since—and won immediately, picking up three checkered flags in his rookie season. He won a pair of championships for Joe Gibbs, before taking an ownership share of fledgling Haas CNC Racing and immediately transforming it into a top caliber team. His 2011 Sprint Cup Championship was the first for an owner/driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. That was Stewart's style, to build and progress, not just with his team but also on the track. No matter what he was driving, Stewart always seemed to be learning exactly what it needed, and what it could do, as the laps ticked down. Stewart had a natural feel for the car, and by race's end they were effectively one, both aggressive enough to push past the competition and calm enough to know exactly where the limit lies.

Amidst of all the glory, scattered throughout the 15 poles, 48 wins, and more than $120 million in prize money, Stewart still found time to needle reporters, scuffle with his rivals, master the sarcastic press conference, develop an addiction to Candy Crush, and turn his pet monkey over to the Louisville Zoo. In a sport that is part thrilling competition and part traveling circus, Stewart could always be counted on for some variety of spectacle.

When you are not really that interested in obliging a selfie request. — Photo by Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, there have been darker turns. A broken leg in a 2013 sprint car wreck ended his season, and required multiple surgeries. Then, in August 2014, another sprint car race turned truly tragic, when Stewart's car struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward, who had exited his car during a caution period. Though Stewart was not criminally charged in the incident, Ward's family filed a wrongful death civil suit, which remains pending.

At Wednesday's press conference, Stewart maintained that neither the injury nor the fatal accident influenced his decision. But be it health, psyche, age, or something else entirely, there is no denying that Smoke's results have fallen off: after 15 consecutive years with at least one checkered flag, he has now gone two years without a win. It's a dry spell that, Stewart left no doubt, he still intends to end.

"This added year is not just a ride‑it‑out year," said Stewart. "This is 'we're going to gouge our eyes out and do everything we can to win races and win another championship.' I'm looking forward to that."

Undoubtedly, racing fans will look forward to it as well, because whether or not it proves successful, Stewart's quest for a few more milestones—a return to victory lane, a final Chase berth, perhaps that ever-elusive Daytona 500—promises to provide plenty of the narrative juice that fuels the entire sport. That is as it should be, because whether NASCAR's luminaries present him with a gold-plated grandfather clock or just a case of Schlitz, the greatest gift for Stewart will be a chance to make the grandstands roar one last time. Just don't expect him to talk about it much.

"If you guys miss me that bad," Stewart joked, "you guys can send me text messages and say we really miss you in the media center." That's about as sentimental as Smoke gets, even as he enters the last turn toward the rocking chair.