“Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
The words out of Joe Gibbs’ mouth Sunday evening echoed even with Hendrick Motorsports Jimmie Johnson celebrating his historic seventh Sprint Cup Series championship just a few yards away from the massive crowd surrounding the No. 14 car.
18 years. It has been quite the journey.
One of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history is done. That’s it. 618 races and a legend has called it a career.
Tony Stewart is retired.
As NASCAR’s current and past stars went over to congratulate him in the midst of a pool of media, Stewart was all smiles.
“For those guys to send me off the way they did, that was a moment I’ll never forget,” Stewart said. “I’ve been ready to make a change, and that starts now. I had a fun time racing with the guys and laughing and joking all day.”
In traditional Stewart fashion, he went out with some controversy.
Stewart voiced his anger about Landon Cassill arguably getting five spots on the final restart. However, nothing could get in the way of making his last race special.
“What the hell, it’s over,” Stewart joked. “Nobody is mad at me, and I’m not mad at anybody.”
And it is indeed over.
2015 Cup Series champion and Stewart’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, Kyle Busch, made his way over to the No. 14 car after finishing sixth in a dramatic title battle at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After years of battling on and off the racetrack, the two hugged it out on pit road.
“I’ll see you at the Christmas party,” Stewart joked.
“Is that right?” Busch asked with a smile.
“Bobby (Labonte), Dale (Jarrett) and I are going to be at the kid’s table in the back raising hell.
“Bring it on, man. It’s going to be fun.”
Stewart’s final day a full-time driver in NASCAR’s premier division began with a world full of emotions. During the driver’s meeting, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France thanked the three-time champion for what he’s done to the sport.
A tribute video was played to honor Stewart, along with NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton giving him a replica bobble head, a whole lot smaller than the one Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage gave him.
As the day continued, Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet, soaked in a special black paint scheme with pictures of his top moments on the hood, was separated from the rest of the field on the starting grid instead of by his original starting position of 11th. A fence was built around him, and no, President-elect Donald Trump did not build it.
Stewart’s crew, along with a handful of special guests, teammate Kevin Harvick (right) and one of his replacement drivers when he was injured at the start of his final season, Brian Vickers, gathered around for a group picture.
NASCAR set aside a special pace lap dedicated to Stewart’s career. A massive truck circled around the track with a flag that said, “Thanks Smoke!” on it, with Stewart trailing it.
“It’s an honor,” Stewart said about all the plethora of people coming up to him. “I’m the guy that will fight with them if I disagree with them. But they know I’ll fight for them, too. That’s what means the most when you have these guys coming up to you at the end of the day and saying they’re going to miss you.”
Though he won’t be in a racecar any longer, he says he will still fight for drivers if they want him to do so. However, now that he is retired, he is being booted from the driver’s council, just like four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who wrapped up his full-time driving career one year prior to Stewart.
Now, as Stewart is set to focus his time on his ownership role with Stewart-Haas Racing and competing in different racing divisions throughout the country, he will hang on tight to his passion.
“I know it’s the end of the driving part,” Stewart said about his NASCAR career. “It’s just not over yet. It’s not over until I retire from Stewart-Haas Racing.”
But for the NASCAR realm, this loss will be hard to adjust to.
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) November 21, 2016
Stewart ends his career with a 22nd-place finish, two laps down. While he didn’t go out on top on the racetrack, he did in the minds of his peers.
Gordon approached Stewart following the race, splitting a sea of reporters like Moses.
The two shook hands and hugged, beginning the next phase of their friendships as two retired, middle-aged men. As Gordon stepped away, heading to the championship stage to greet the man who set a history mark Sunday evening, Stewart took a moment to gaze at Gordon. He returned to reporters with a giant smile on his face.
— Mike Bugarewicz (@BugaMike) November 21, 2016
Stewart’s impact on the NASCAR world has been endless. The good deeds unseen to the public eye are ones that must be appreciated by those who know him the most.
More importantly, no one must forget what made Stewart so special on the racetrack: His rare demeanor, along with his ability to wheel a racecar in an intimidating fashion, made him like none other.
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