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Commentary: The town always ready to welcome Tony Stewart home

There's a story my high school English teacher used to share about the headstrong boy in the back of the class.

They were studying one of the classics, and the boy didn't understand why he had to bother with it. He didn't need books; he was going to become a famous race car driver.

My teacher never mentioned his old student's name, and he never needed to. When you grow up in the hometown of Tony Stewart, the shadow of the three-time NASCAR champion is impossible to ignore.

His name is on the sign that welcomes you to Columbus, Ind. The downtown Dairy Queen put up a mural in his honor. An orange-and-white Tony Stewart flag flew above city hall.

Soon enough, Stewart will be able to spend a lot more time back home in our 46,000-person community 45 miles south of Indianapolis. He announced in the fall that this season — which begins with the Feb. 21 Daytona 500 — will be his last as a full-time Sprint Cup driver. The back injury he sustained this month, which will cause him to miss Daytona, isn't expected to change those plans.

As Stewart, 44, prepares for retirement, it's still hard to believe that the headstrong boy in the back of the class emerged from a humble town surrounded by cornfields to become one of the most successful drivers of his generation.

Columbus embraced Stewart long before he was a star. When the 1997 Indy 500 was rained out until Tuesday, my elementary school class sat cross-legged on the floor to listen to the radio as Stewart led. We felt disappointed for him when he finished a career-best fifth.

When Stewart finally won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway eight years later in NASCAR's Brickyard 400, thousands lined the downtown streets for a parade in his honor. Neighbors cheered the hometown boy who accomplished his childhood dream of winning at the legendary track.

Racing fans respected his talent, but his no-filter, no-frills approach struck home with the rest of a working-class community known for its diesel engines.

While much of the sport turned clean-cut to appease sponsors, Stewart's edges stayed rough. He spoke his mind, even if his words were abrasive. He kept his home in Columbus, 500 miles from NASCAR's corporate hub in Charlotte, N.C.; only three other Cup mainstays still live in their hometowns.

Even as he was competing for championships, he stuck to his roots by driving at dirt tracks, far from the spotlight. Word around town was he remained a regular at Waffle House.

The same brashness that made him challenge a teacher in front of the whole class allowed him to chase down Carl Edwards at Homestead to win the 2011 Sprint Cup championship. The unwavering confidence he displayed when he autographed a napkin for a co-worker at McDonald's helped him come back from a broken leg years later.

But the very traits that fueled his unquestioned success— 48 Cup wins, four major championships (including an Indy Racing League crown in 1997) — also caused "Smoke" to burn out of control.

Stewart punched a photographer at Indy in 2002. He threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth in 2012 after a wreck at Bristol. He confronted a heckler last month in the stands of a midget car event.

When Stewart's car struck and killed a competitor in an August 2014 sprint car wreck, my phone and Facebook feed exploded with shock as friends tried to process the tragedy. A year and a half later, their biggest questions remain unanswered.

Those flare-ups remain part of his image, even in our hometown, but they're not the whole picture. He built a playground near his childhood home. When our high school marching band was preparing for a trip to California, Stewart — a former trombone player — quietly donated to his old group.

Whenever and however his career closes, fans will debate where he belongs among the sport's all-time greats. But back among the cornfields and diesel engines of our hometown, Tony Stewart's legacy will remain the same as it is now, and the same as it always has been.

He's the hometown hero who never really left.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Commentary: The town always ready to welcome Tony Stewart home 02/12/16 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2016 8:49pm]
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