The word retirement for athletes, uttered by Tony Stewart this season, often comes associated with two dreaded “R” words: regression and regret.
Unlike the American dream, a job where you work 50 years toward a peak salary retirement for athletic superstars almost always occurs before age 50. The best peak at their profession, set seemingly unbeatable records and then watch inexplicably their skills start failing before they reach middle age. The cruelest part is that many don’t realize it until years after it happens; they leave their chosen profession a mere shell of the talent that once defined their sport.
Until Sunday’s fateful race at Sonoma Raceway, Stewart was threatening to fall under this category. He hadn’t won since Dover in June 2013, a three-year drought fraught with off-track obstacles. Since then, a devastating leg injury, not all that dissimilar to the type Kyle Busch suffered, left Stewart down for the count for half a season. Busch recovered from his maladies to win a championship six months later; Stewart, in his mid-40s, found his journey back to 100 percent far more challenging. Add in a fractured vertebrae suffered in January plus the mental anguish of the Kevin Ward, Jr. tragedy, and the trend is clear: Stewart’s had his fair share of obstacles just to race on Sundays.
The regression from a driver just four years removed from his third Sprint Cup championship has been difficult to watch. Stewart never had fewer than 16 top 10s in a season from his debut in the Cup Series in 1999 through 2012. During his four-year slump, mercifully ended in Sonoma on Sunday? Stewart has never posted more than eight. A streak of 15 straight seasons with a victory was ended in 2014; the following season, Stewart’s worst in the sport, he failed to even register a top-5 finish. The veteran’s 297 laps led since the start of the 2013 season don’t even match the total he posted during all of 2012 (420), the last time he qualified for NASCAR’s Chase and was competitive on a week-to-week basis.
All of that pain and anguish fell to the wayside after Smoke rose with a stirring victory in Sonoma. After a fortuitous caution earned him the lead Stewart earned that trophy over the final 20 laps, fighting off several rivals who were faster while driving on tires that were ever-so-slightly older. Once Denny Hamlin slipped by, seemingly ripping away the heart of a retiree during the white-flag lap, Stewart fought back, capitalizing on a turn-11 mistake and slamming Hamlin while slipping by to take the checkered flag. The 45-year-old did burnouts to a standing ovation before exiting the car with that perfect retiree mix of reality: ecstasy, relief and total exhaustion.
The magnitude of the victory is one that Stewart himself is still processing. Despite missing eight races with his latest injury, NASCAR’s new rules assure that unless six new drivers win between now and Richmond, the three-time champion will earn a spot in the postseason Chase. Once there, as we saw with Jeff Gordon last season, anything can happen for a veteran in Stewart, who’s played the underdog role before; his 2011 title was won entering the Chase on fumes, sitting 10th in points and with a crew chief who worked the entire 10-race playoff under the cloud of a pink slip. NASCAR’s new format allows for quirky things to happen; wild card races like Talladega can keep even an inconsistent Smoke sneaking through rounds. Suddenly, a driving world that Stewart admitted days before Sonoma “wasn’t making him happy” anymore offers a ray of sunshine as he pulls to exit off the highway.
More importantly, Stewart changed course from a legacy that was ending with a whimper. His recent statistics, spread out over the final four years, left him more on the side of legends like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, drivers who stayed too long at the dance and left NASCAR as field-fillers rather than true contenders. Now, Stewart has a chance to have more of a Rusty Wallace-like exit, entering NASCAR’s postseason somewhat competitive while earning the victory Wallace could never snag on his way out. In fact, of the top nine drivers on NASCAR’s all-time win list (Jimmie Johnson excluded, as he’s still active) only Gordon, Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt ended their final full-time seasons with a victory. In the cases of Allison and Earnhardt, retirement came in the form of an accident — tragic in Earnhardt’s case — so we’ll never know if in the end they, too, would have slipped inside a race car long after their skills had gone kablooey.
Now Stewart, who with one more victory could move into a tie for 11th on that all-time win list with 50 total, has a chance to rewrite his own legacy. After years of struggle, the storyline has shifted from a driver suffering under physical and mental anguish to one who can end his career with the type of aggressive performance on which it was built. The team which he co-owns, Stewart-Haas Racing, rallies around its leader daily; just look at the conga line of crewmen slapping him with high fives at Sonoma as simple proof. There’s no question the team’ll go for broke in the Chase the same way Hendrick Motorsports rallied around Gordon and the No. 24 car; the possibilities are suddenly endless for Stewart on his way out the door.
There’s a whole lot of athletes who wish they could have been so blessed. In one shining moment, sliding through the turns at Sonoma, Stewart moved from the rule of regression to potential exception.