Saturday, January 20, 2018

Retiring driver Tony Stewart's NASCAR legacy? It's complicated

HOMESTEAD — Tony Stewart isn't giving much thought to his legacy this weekend. He's been too busy looking for his cell phone.

While walking around downtown Miami on Thursday night with his girlfriend, Stewart had his phone snatched from his pocket. So, instead of concentrating on the final race of his Sprint Cup career on Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart has been in full investigative mode.

"It was kind of fun because they have that Find My iPhone app," Stewart said Friday. "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. My life is on that cell phone, so I start my life over (Saturday)."

Stewart's life will change in other ways after this weekend. After 18 seasons as one of NASCAR's biggest stars, he's retiring from driving in the Cup series. He will focus on his duties as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, the other teams he owns in other forms of motorsports as well as his ownership of Eldora Speedway in Ohio.

"Normally legacy means you're old, you've been around for a long time," said Stewart, 45. "It's been a fun 18 years. Not every part of it has been fun, but I've always said what was on my mind, whether it was popular or unpopular.

"I always fought for what I believed in, whether it was safety for other drivers or etiquette at the race track or whatever. I can sleep all right knowing that is why I did it."

Stewart's description of his legacy hints at how complicated it will actually be. He stresses that since he will continue to be around the NASCAR garage area most weeks his story hasn't been fully written. But as far as a driver in NASCAR's top level, it has.

Stewart grew up racing in his home state of Indiana, winning several U.S. Auto Club titles. He came to NASCAR in 1999 from the IndyCar Series, where he had won the 1997 championship. He has won 49 NASCAR Cup races and three championships, all the while taking time to help out racers and tracks — either financially or by his presence — in the sport's lower divisions.

Recent years have been trying for Stewart, however.

He broke his leg in 2013 during a sprint car race and missed 15 Cup races. He missed three races in 2014 after he was involved in a sprint car accident that claimed the life of another driver on a dirt track in upstate New York. (Stewart was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but a civil case against him is still pending.)

Then, he missed the first eight races of this season after he broke his back in a February dune-buggy accident in the California desert.

Stewart made the most of his limited schedule this season, however, qualifying for the Chase by winning at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June. He bowed out of the postseason after the first round.

And that sharp tongue? He's still got it. NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 earlier this year after he questioned recent pit-road rules changes he felt led to unsafe conditions.

"Tony brought a lot of color, excitement," said team owner Rick Hendrick, for whom Stewart briefly drove in the Xfinity Series earlier in his career. "He mentored a lot of young drivers. He sure showed a lot of passion. He's somebody that the sport needed and still needs. (But) he knows it's time to step out and do something else."

Stewart insists that, although he might continue to drive in some races in lower divisions, his days in a Cup car are definitely over. Of course, that's what Jeff Gordon said when he retired in 2015. But when former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion earlier this season, Gordon agreed to return as a substitute driver for eight races.

"No, I'm good; this is it," Stewart said. "This is the last one. I think I learned my lesson from Jeff. (He) tried to do somebody a favor this year and got roped into running half the season. Thank you, Jeff, for teaching me a lesson before I got roped into it. So, no, I'm not planning on that at all."

Stewart's Sprint Cup career by the numbers

234,560: Miles driven.

176,138: Laps driven.

12,815: Laps led.

1999: Sprint Cup debut.

617: Career starts.

308: Top-10 wins.

125: Career winnings (in millions).

187: Top-5 finishes

49: Wins.

45: Age.

26: Races missed (all since 2013).

18: Seasons.

15: Poles.

14: Car number.

11: Rank in NASCAR career wins list.

10: Years with Home Depot as primary sponsor.

9: Drivers, including Stewart, to win at least three Cup championships.

8: Road course wins.

7: Short track wins.

6: Wins in 2000.

5: Wins at Watkins Glen, his most at any NASCAR track.

4: Cars owned with Gene Haas at Stewart-Haas Racing.

3: Championships (2002, 2005, 2011).

2: Brickyard 400 wins (2005, 2007)

1: Nickname (Smoke).

0: Victories in Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, Southern 500.

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