Tony Stewart’s final season as a Sprint Cup Series regular was interrupted by some type of accident for the third time in four years, and once again, the accident didn’t take place in a NASCAR event. The three-time champion missed the first eight races of the season after suffering a severe back injury trying to have some fun on a dune buggy in the desert with Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and others.
While Stewart made headlines for his season not starting on time, it was certainly not the only headline worthy moment for the 18-year veteran, who announced in the fall of 2015 that 2016 would be his final season and who finished his career with 49 Sprint Cup victories.
That last victory will be memorable for many reasons. It came at Sonoma Raceway, a track where Stewart had won two other times, and it came on a dramatic last lap where he lost the lead to former teammate Denny Hamlin, only to regain it with an aggressive slide move going into the final corner. The win also put Stewart in position to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Championship for the first time since 2012.
But that final victory was not the only highlight of the season for Stewart.
Maybe knowing he wasn’t coming back in 2017 caused the veteran to have little patience for others who didn’t show him a little respect on the track. Most notably was the run-in he had with former teammate Ryan Newman in the regular season-finale at Richmond. Newman still had an outside shot at making the Chase, but appeared to test Stewart one too many times with the result of Stewart turning down in front Newman causing the crash.
Newman’s post-race comments included saying Stewart should retire. Stewart reacted by saying Newman will get his wish after Homestead. Stewart also said he gave Newman three chances before the final wreck, noting he usually gives drivers just one chance.
There were other dramatic moments, too, that had nothing to do with making another driver angry. There were the usual tributes and thanks yous on Stewart’s farewell tour. But maybe the most notable one came at the track where he grew up watching his hero, A.J. Foyt. Stewart and another Indiana favorite son, Jeff Gordon, who was filling in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., took a post-race parade lap together after the checkered flag flew at the Brickyard 400.
One part of the entertainment factor that will be missed with Stewart is his radio chatter during yellow or red flags. During the second Pocono race, it was Stewart who said on his radio that rookie Chris Buescher deserved that first win, even if it was fog-aided, in this case. Then in the Dover chase race, Stewart made his way into the top 10 and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz told Stewart he had done a nice job. Stewart replied back, “that’s why they pay me the big bucks.” Bugarewicz, said, “No, that’s why you pay you the big bucks.” To which Stewart said, “Oh, yeah.”
As it turned out, that Dover race was the final meaningful one for the driver of the No. 14 in terms of being able to compete for a title. Stewart finished 13th that day and was eliminated from the first round of the Chase. The driver long-known as “Smoke” did manage one more top 10, with a ninth at Charlotte the next week and it was the only top 10 in his final 14 races who has won on every track in the current schedule with the exception of Darlington and Kentucky.
After that Charlotte race, it appeared if Stewart knew he didn’t have a competitive car, he did his best to stay out of the way of the other contenders. Something very un-Stewart like over the course of his career, in terms of being a driver who had as much ability as anyone to squeeze speed out of a car.
While Stewart will still be present at NASCAR races as one of the owners for Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s said he is not entirely done racing. He has mentioned he will be running on many of the dirt tracks he so loves in 2017. Those are the types of track where Stewart’s career began.
From the dirt tracks he came, and to them, he will return.
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