This was a good week to be Tony Stewart.
On Wednesday, Stewart’s Eldora Speedway hosted the Camping World Truck Series. As the only dirt track race that any of NASCAR’s national series runs, the Eldora Dirt Derby is always a highly-anticipated event. This year’s edition featured plenty of action, capped with a photo finish between Chase Briscoe and Grant Enfinger. Briscoe’s 0.038 seconds margin of victory ensured that the event lived up to the hype.
After that, Stewart-Haas Racing put on a strong performance on a rainy Sunday in Loudon, New Hampshire. Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola led a combined 136 laps, but it was Kevin Harvick who found himself chasing leader Kyle Busch in the final circuits. With seven laps to go, Harvick executed a bump-and-run, pushing the No. 18 just enough to slide it out of the racing groove. Busch never had the opportunity to return the favor, and the No. 4 team claimed its sixth win of the season.
SHR is poised to put all four of its drivers in the playoffs for the first time. Stewart and Harvick have each won a championship for the team before, but this level of sustained speed across the organization is a first. It was only 10 years ago that Stewart decided to leave JGR, where he could have easily spent his entire career, to bring his skills and talent to Gene Haas’ struggling operation. Haas has undoubtedly helped Stewart in his role as a team owner. Nevertheless, Stewart enjoyed great success as an owner/driver, and his transition into a full-time ownership role has been smooth as can be.
Stewart maintains a hands-on role in his motorsports pursuits. He is a man who appreciates racing for racing’s sake, whether it is the sprint car and late model racing that Eldora more typically hosts, or competition in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Throughout his driving career, Stewart always seemed to be measuring his love of racing against his distaste for many of the activities that being a racer required. But as a team owner and track operator, love of racing has clearly been winning the battle, and Stewart has remained an influential figure in NASCAR beyond the end of his career as a stock car racer.
During his driving days, Stewart did not have much patience for anything that did not make his car go faster. He viewed activities like media appearances and sponsor obligations as minutia, as extraneous events that cut into time he could have otherwise spent hurtling around a race track. Stewart was also quick to express his displeasure with anyone or anything that complicated his job as a driver. He rarely hesitated to criticize Goodyear publicly and was even open about his frustrations with the sanctioning body and fans.
One memorable instance occurred during the 2012 season. A lack of accidents characterized some of the early races that year, and it became a talking point among fans and the media. Talladega Superspeedway’s spring race delivered a predictable amount of carnage, including two major crashes in the last 50 laps. Stewart got caught up in the second, and he sarcastically replied after the race that he wished that he could have been in a few more.
Those comments were relatively harmless, more indicative of Stewart living up to his reputation as a cantankerous rebel. But there was a time when Stewart’s reputation was a more serious concern when his temper led to real outbursts that produced serious consequences. When he had a physical altercation with a reporter in 2002, many began to wonder if his anger would lead to him getting kicked out of the sport.
No one questioned his ability behind the wheel, but was he prepared to deal with all the responsibilities and pressure that a career in NASCAR demanded? He seemed destined to either conquer his demons and become one of the greatest drivers in his generation or flame out in a blaze of anger that would render him untouchable to race teams. It was the love of racing against the frustrations of being a career racecar driver.
We know now that Stewart never lost his hot-headed streak, but he kept his temper in check well enough to have a long and successful driving career. But his impact on NASCAR did not end with his last race. Stewart stays busy with track management, team ownership, and dirt racing. By doing so, he has created a more balanced career for himself than he had before. If he wants to go racing, he has the resources to do it. No longer a youngster trying to prove himself in a hyper-competitive world, Stewart can go race with little pressure wherever he wants. He can take pride in facilitating dirt racing at one of its most famous venues.
In the world of NASCAR, Stewart no longer focuses on how to make his car go faster, but how to make his team stronger. He has done a particularly good job of that in recent years. The pairing of Harvick and Rodney Childers, the switch to Ford, and finally the hiring of Almirola have all combined to make SHR the strongest team in the sport right now. Like Alan Kulwicki before him, Stewart knows how to make the tough decisions that will benefit his race team, and he is willing to shoulder that responsibility.
Stewart had no regrets about ending his NASCAR driving career in 2016. His love of racing has kept him involved with the sport, and his transition away from the driver’s seat can serve as a model as his contemporaries, the original young guns of the late 1990s and early 2000s, wind down their careers. Smoke’s long journey to establishing his place among NASCAR’s legends will continue to unfold in ways we, and maybe Stewart himself, never expected.