Tony Stewart will ride into the sunset Sunday evening with a smile on his face no matter the outcome.
That’s even if it means he is without one of his most — if not the most — important possession he owns.
Stewart’s last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekend as a driver is already off to an odd start, which is nothing new for one of the sport’s most colorful characters. But the latest story involving the three-time Cup Series champion is certainly a different type of way to start his last race.
“Someone reached down yesterday and took my cell phone from my pocket,” Stewart said during a press conference late Friday morning. “It’s been a hell of a start to the weekend, getting your phone stolen. Probably the biggest thing I realized when my phone was stolen was the fact that I was in the middle of answering text messages from a bunch of people. I got a flood of text messages yesterday. I’m sure when I turn it on, it’ll be absolutely crazy.”
Stewart was with his girlfriend at a carnival when he lost his phone, he said. As the couple was about to leave the carnival, he realized his iPhone was gone.
“We had bumped into some people right before that, and I’m fairly certain that is when it decided it went a different direction, but it was kind of fun because they have that Find My iPhone app,” Stewart said. “We went chasing people forever trying to find it, until we realized they were in the parking lot and they got in the car and they were gone. I hit block on it and deleted it, and now I’ve got to get a new phone, which is devastating because I do everything off of my cell phone.”
Now, Stewart will “start his life over tomorrow.”
But in all reality, he will click the reset button Sunday, when he straps into his No. 14 car — or any Cup car, for that matter — for the final time. Instead of having to wake up for 9 a.m. practice sessions on Saturday mornings, he’ll be enjoying sleeping in as Clint Bowyer takes over his ride in 2017.
Still, even as Stewart transitions into the life of a retired racer, he’ll have plenty on his plate.
While Smoke claimed he will not be like Jeff Gordon, who replaced an injured Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this year, he said he will continue to race. However, it just won’t be in a Cup car. The schedule is set to be full of sprint car races instead, along with possible runs in the Whelen Modified Tour.
There is also one top-tier NASCAR event on Stewart’s list to which he is still open.
“The Truck [Series] race [at Eldora Speedway] is a tug-of-war every year,” Stewart said. “About April or May, I get in a tug-of-war with myself: Do I want to do the Truck race? I would love to race the Truck race at Eldora. The trouble is, I worry like a parent the whole time that we are there for that race.
“I think you guys have seen the role I play there every year, and it’s a busy role. So I don’t know that I have time to do the Truck race. Maybe one day down the road. But right now I am going to take care of making sure we do the best job we can as a racetrack to put on a great event.”
Stewart is quite comfortable with the idea of retiring, something rare for athletes being forced to end their careers. Perhaps that’s because, along with racing elsewhere he’ll be busy with a Cup Series ownership role with Gene Haas.
Not only did Stewart-Haas Racing make the swap from Chevrolet to Ford in 2017, but the organization is also expanding to the XFINITY Series with Cole Custer. SHR expects to keep a four-car Cup organization for the foreseeable future.
Stewart, who competed for Joe Gibbs Racing from 1999 to 2008, is grateful for his time with the former NFL head coach as his owner.
“You have to remember I drove for Joe Gibbs a total of 12 years – 10 years in the Cup Series,” Stewart said. “If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I would have ever been a racecar owner. I don’t think I would have ever been a track owner, and I damn sure wouldn’t have even remotely entertained the idea of being an owner at the Cup level.
“I learned a lot from Joe. Anyone who has been successful in the NFL, NASCAR and NHRA, you realize there is something special there and you want to learn from. If you paid attention to what he said, which there were a lot of times that I didn’t pay attention enough, but the days I did pay attention, I learned a lot from Joe, and those lessons are what helped the foundation in my mind to do what I have done in the last 15 years.”
Since becoming a team owner in NASCAR’s premier division, Stewart’s partnership with Haas has created one of the sport’s most successful programs. Stewart brought the team its first title in 2011, with Kevin Harvick giving them another championship in 2014.
And Gibbs is quite appreciative of the years he had to not only develop Stewart’s on-track abilities in a stock car, but also the respect he has earned from his peers on the track and off.
“He’s one of the best people who has a great feeling for himself and great pride,” Gibbs said. “He told me, ‘I’m not ready.’ I don’t know any other driver who said they’re not ready. When he was racing for us, he had such a passion. He really went after it. He’s one of the greatest competitors.
“We had a horrible pit stop when he first went to Cup, and most drivers usually go nuts. He goes to the back of the field and goes, ‘watch this.’ He went to the front faster than anybody.”
Along the way, Stewart has garnered respect from NASCAR’s premier owners, each of whom have developed championship-caliber organizations that will compete with him for some time to come.
“To see him step out and do something else is amazing,” team owner Roger Penske said. “I respect him, and I also respect him to say, hey, it’s time for me to get out — Rick Mears did that a number of years ago. He said, you know, Roger, I just can’t dig down deep enough anymore to make it happen. I think that’s where Tony is.”
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