Stewart Got All Dolled Up At His Texas Farewell

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 17 2016
Tony Stewart did not get a rocking chair on his final visit to Texas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Tony Stewart did not get a rocking chair on his final visit to Texas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – As retirement gifts at Texas Motor Speedway go, Tony Stewart could have done worse.

Consider that last November, TMS President Eddie Gossage presented retirement-bound/four-bugfeaturetime NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, and children Ella and Leo, a pair of Shetland ponies named Scout and Smoky…and a shovel…and suggested Sir Jeff invest in a pair of rubber boots…and maybe a stable…and most of all, Happy Holidays! That gift left Gordon laughing through his tears.

Anthony Wayne Stewart, a three-time Cup champ who will make his final series start Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, instead has been “immortalized” in the pop culture format of a bobblehead distributed to the first 30,000 fans who attended  the recent rain-plagued AAA Texas 500 here.

Tony’s introduction to the eight-inch likeness _ complete with trademark facial scruff _ was enough to trigger a tongue-in-cheek critique from “Smoke” during an interview with Dallas-Fort Worth media.

“Truth be told, Eddie Gossage, he’s on a budget,” Stewart said. “These bobbleheads, they stole someone else’s body and put my head on it. He said he did it to try to make me look skinny. I say it’s because he was on a tight budget.”

Armed with that remark, Gossage rallied to get in the last dig/laugh during pre-race ceremonies, when he unveiled a yuuuuuuge 6-foot version of the bobblehead for Stewart to haul out of Cowtown.

“I don’t think I ever aspired and thought my career isn’t going to be complete until I got a bobblehead,” Stewart said. “But now, I got one and my life is complete and I can end at any time and be fine with it. The scary part is it kind of does look like me _ it’s scary. I’m pretty certain everyone’s going to take them home and put it in the corner of their house on the floor to keep the insects and mice away.  It’s going to scare everybody, or ward off intruders. I’m not sure yet.”

Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS, touched on a variety of subjects during a break in his annual “Smoke Show” day-long fantasy camp for fans last month on behalf of Speedway Children’s Charities.

“It’s been fun to meet people at the racetrack that say they came because they knew it was our last year,” said Stewart, a 45-year-old native of Columbus, Ind. “It validates why we did what we did. I wish we were still in the middle of the Chase. The positive thing about not being in the Chase at this point is we can go have fun and do everything we can to win a race before it’s over and just have fun. It’s kind of fun being in that position where you have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

Co-owner with businessman Gene Haas of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart emphasized this is a retirement solely from the meat-grinder that is the NASCAR Cup schedule. He plans to return to his roots by running selected open-wheel dirt-track events next year, along with some endurance sports car racing.

“Who told you my racing career is coming to a close?” said Stewart, responding rhetorically to a reporter’s question. “Apparently you don’t know what I do for racing. I’m going to race more races next year than this year, by probably 20 races. My career is not coming to an end, just my Cup career is coming to an end.  We did this (announcement) last year because we wanted our fans to be able to come see us race one last time. I’m excited about that.”

Typically, Stewart admitted he has not been overly sentimental during his final go-round of the NASCAR cross-country schedule that stretches from February at Daytona International Speedway to Homestead-Miami Speedway at the end of November. Collect any intriguing memorabilia along the farewell route?

“No, I didn’t even think of that, to be honest,” Stewart said. “I probably should have thought about that last year at this time, but I haven’t done anything. It’s kind of been business as usual. I guess if I was totally leaving the sport I would have thought about a lot of things a lot different but next year I’m still going to be at the racetrack. We have an Xfinity team (starting) next year, we’re going to have the Cup teams, I’m going to be there a lot. I guess in my mind, it’s kind of business as usual with a little twist.”

Along those lines, Stewart said he never has second-guessed his decision to exit Cup. “I told you guys last year that there are not any second thoughts,” Stewart said. “I think you guys have learned by now that when I make a decision I’m pretty solid on it. I ran through all this before I decided to make a decision. We are pretty comfortable with what we’re doing.”

Stewart first gained notoriety as original “Poster Boy” and champion for Tony George’s fledgling/all-oval Indy Racing League in 1997. “Better to have my face on a poster than on a milk carton,” Stewart famously opined back then.

Asked to name the driver whom he most enjoyed racing against, Stewart similarly returned to the early years of his career. “Before I got to NASCAR, probably the greatest guy I raced with was Kenny Irwin Jr.,” said Stewart, a nod to the former U.S. Auto Club open-wheel ace and fellow-native of Indiana. Irwin was killed in a crash during Cup practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 7, 2000. He was 30-years-old. When an emotional Stewart won the race two days later, he gave the trophy to Irwin’s parents.

“We were rivals but there were a lot of times we had a lot of fun together as well,” Stewart said of Irwin. “He was somebody I had a high level of respect for. Then I came here and everybody was fun _ you had Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Jeff Burton. I mean, they were all fun because they were just fun guys. They all had their own personalities and the things that they liked and disliked. Mike Skinner was a good friend of mine when he was running fulltime. That’s the best thing about the sport, it’s the people that are a part of it that make it what it is.”

Stewart’s outspoken personality, and oft-times adversarial relationship with the NASCAR media, certainly will influence how he is remembered. So be it, Smoke said.

“Everybody’s memories are going to be whatever they remember of it and what they experienced,” said Stewart, whose versatility from open-wheel to sports cars to stock cars has drawn career-long comparisons to native Texan A.J. Foyt Jr. “To me, I don’t even think about it. It’s not about me, it’s about the whole sport, about the fans. It’s about all of us enjoying what we do here.”

Stewart indicated he is intrigued by becoming more involved as car-owner only and discussing the complicated business of growing NASCAR.

“I’ve been to a couple of the owners’ meetings and it’s been cool to sit there with Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs and those guys,” Stewart said. “It’s like an episode of Sesame Street where there’s one thing in the room that doesn’t belong and it’s not like the others, what is it? And they point at me. That part is kind of the fun part. I won’t say that I’m a part of that group yet because I feel like I’m just a driver right now, but to be able to work with those guys on behalf of the sport is going to be fun.”

Stewart also praised the nine-member drivers council for its input as “partner” with the organization headed by Brian Z. France, NASCAR Chairman of the Board/CEO and grandson of founder Big Bill France. The first-year drivers group typically communicates among its members via text and holds periodic meetings with NASCAR officials. The council was formed last spring and conducted its first meeting with the sanctioning body in late May.

“The thing I’m most excited for with the drivers council is that it’s a good group of guys in there right now,” Stewart said. “I feel they have the mindset and ability to work with each other for the right reasons, causes and goals. Every driver and their team have a certain thing they’re working on, that they are wanting to save, and this group is really not biased in that.

“I’m really proud of the drivers council. I wish we could tell you what’s discussed in it, but it’s not the right thing to do. I can tell you that sitting in these meetings with these guys and being a part of it, I am proud of them and the work they put in because five years ago we didn’t have anything like this and drivers had opinions but it wasn’t very welcomed to talk about it. Now, NASCAR as a whole is really receptive to it and works very well with the council, so there’s some good things.

“It would be really easy in our sport to be selfish and try to work on things that you think are going to benefit you, but the drivers council does a really good job about not doing that. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about that, but to a certain degree I really was surprised that everybody cared more about the sport than their individual organizations and what they are working on.”

Stats-wise, Stewart’s win on the road-course at Somona (Calif.) Raceway in June left him one checkered flag shy of 50 Cup victories, which would be the perfect number on which to retire. Stewart is the only Cup driver to win on HMS’ 1.5-mile oval in his first start (1999). He will carry 15 poles and 309 top-10 results into the scheduled 267-lapper at HMS, where he clinched his third title in 2011 with a victory.

Trailing point-leader Carl Edwards, then of Roush Fenway Racing, by three points leading into that race, Stewart virtually needed a win to capture the title. Stewart won and Edwards finished second, placing the pair in a points deadlock. But Stewart, who previously won Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 at Joe Gibbs Racing, held the tiebreaker via victories during the season, 5-1. It is his only title as Cup team-co-owner.

Stewart has been a regular and enthusiastic promotional visitor to TMS during its 20-year tenure, noting that he has become fast friends and has enjoyed working with Gossage; Kenton Nelson, assistant general manager/vice president of events and Mike Zizzo, vice president of media relations.

“I mean that’s the three main reasons you come and have fun because of those guys,” Stewart said. “The track is a great track. The great thing is Eddie Gossage is smart enough to know that repaving this track could be the worst thing you could ever do right now. This track has got enough age on it that when it’s hot it’s slick and everybody is racing all over the racetrack and it’s good racing. And they treat everybody good here. It’s the second or third-biggest purses of the year for us. As Cup drivers, these are the races that everybody looks at and the crowd here is awesome. It’s a great market for our sport.”

Stewart added that Gossage also has emerged as a trusted business associate. “I’ve owned Eldora (Speedway) now for 10 or 11 years and he’s been the greatest mentor I’ve had from that side,” Stewart said. “He’s so well-rounded. His vision and how he looks outside the box, how he makes you think about things that you don’t normally think about. I think he’s been a big key to our success at the racetrack.”

Stewart said he is eager to experience what life is like outside the NASCAR obligations that have dominated his daily routine. “I’m going to have a lot more flexibility to do things I want to do. That was a big part of it,” Stewart said. “I’m so mental about everything with racing and all the things I still want to do revolve around racing. It’s not like I want to go on some vacation somewhere that I’ve never been, unless it has a racetrack involved. There are races I want to go to and places and events I haven’t been in racing because of our schedule. I’d like to go as a fan, spectator and some of them I want to race in.”

Among his Bucket List items as fan, Stewart said, is experiencing the FIA’s Formula One World Championship with Haas F1 Team _ the first-year, Mooresville, N.C.-based organization owned by business partner Haas.

“It’s going to be fun next year,” Stewart said. “You know, if I want to be at the racetrack, the Cup races for three days every weekend, I can do that. If I want to come just on Sunday, I can do that. If I want to come Friday and be a part of practice and qualifying and hang out with the Xfinity team, I can do that. If I want to go race on Saturday night, I can do that. It’s just nice to have a more flexible schedule.”

Stewart confirmed that his popular “Smoke Show” experience here already has been booked for 2017.

“An event like this, absolutely,” Stewart said. “We definitely want to keep this going. It’s been great for Speedway Children’s Charities. If you remember, the first year we did this it was a media event. We were leaving and Eddie and I were talking how this went better than we even thought and what if we did this for fans. It’s been a great event and raised a lot of money for the Texas Chapter. It’s something I’m really proud to be a part of and just because I’m not going to be a fulltime Cup driver anymore doesn’t mean I don’t want to do this.”

Stewart added he also will be racing some type of vehicle at this facility in 2017…albeit over at the four-tenths-mile TMS Dirt Track. “Yep. That’s one of the two that I got confirmed on my schedule so far,” Stewart said. “I’m excited about it. It’s what I wanted to do anyway. I wanted to get back to dirt racing and you know they have a beautiful track, and I can’t wait to get over there.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 17 2016
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