Yesterday after circulating rumors it was announced that Tony Stewart would be retiring from NASCAR Sprint Cup competition after the 2016 season. Growing up, I was (and still am) a diehard Jeff Gordon fan. On the flip side of that I was a Tony Stewart hater. I didn’t want to see Tony start a race, not to mention win one. It seems very fitting for me that my most loved driver and my most hated driver will leave their careers behind one season apart.
From Tony’s rookie season in 1999 all the way up this year, he has been no stranger to conflict and controversy. This made him easy to hate, in the same way people hated Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Busch or even Dale Earnhardt. A lot of people love him, a lot of people love to hate him. After leaving the #20 Home Depot team in 2008, a team he had won two championships with (02′, 05′), Stewart started his own team with Gene Haas called Stewart-Haas Racing. Whether the team was going to fail or succeed was unknown until the 2009 All Star Race in Charlotte. Tony Stewart took the checkered flag and Stewart-Haas Racing was put on the map. Tony went on to win the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, the first owner/driver to do so since 1992.
As a 12 year old fan watching Stewart win the championship, I became interested in Tony’s past. I had hated him for so long, why not know more about him? This is when I learned about his background in USAC, winning the Triple Crown in 1995. I learned about his 1997 Indy Racing League championship and his Chili Bowl wins. For the first time since I began following NASCAR, I had respect for Tony Stewart. I came to realize that he is one of the best drivers to sit behind the wheel of any race car. If you were a team owner with Tony in your car, you were very likely to go to Victory Lane.
In mid 2013, Stewart was running a Sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway. Stewart was involved in a serious accident that broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg. His injuries kept him out of racing competition for the rest of the 2013 Sprint Cup season. Fans, including me, rallied around Stewart on social media with the hashtag “#SmokeWillRise”, referring to the nickname Stewart was given early in his career, Smoke. Stewart was back in a Sprint Cup car the following year at Daytona but the start of the season did not go exactly smooth. Later that year in July, Tony made his first start back in a Sprint car. He made it feel as though the injury never happened by taking the win at Tri-City Motor Speedway. The redemption of Stewart’s win sadly would not last.
I will never forget when I heard the news. August 9th, 2014. I was just checking my late night news on my social media feeds when I saw it. Tony Stewart was involved in an incident that would change not only his life, but the life of a young man and his family. Less than a month after Tony had reached victory again in Sprint cars, he was racing at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York. He made contact with driver Kevin Ward Jr, causing Kevin to hit the outside guardrail. Kevin, not happy with Stewart, ran back onto the track to voice his displeasure. Race fans have seen drivers direct anger towards other drivers in similar manners before, it becoming a very familiar sight in the sport. This time was different. The rear tire of Tony Stewart’s car struck Ward, running him over and throwing him down the track. The race was immediately stopped and eventually was called off by officials.
Kevin Ward Jr was rushed to the hospital and later, the 20 year old was pronounced dead. The accident could be seen all over the Internet and television in the days and weeks prior to the event. Race fans were not happy with news outlets such as ESPN, due to their seemingly endless showing of the accident. Tony Stewart seemingly disappeared, skipping the next three races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season. When he finally resurfaced to talk with the media, he was visibly upset and stressed about the accident that occurred. The debate about if the accident was intentional by Stewart or not began. Many race fans (including myself) once again rallied around Stewart with #SmokeWillRise. Stewart made the final 12 races of the 2014 season, failing to win any.
While Stewart was battling with not only the mental, but the legal problems following Kevin Ward Jr’s death, his race team battled through the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Tony’s long time friend and newly hired driver, Kevin Harvick went the distance, winning the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. This was a much needed win not only for Harvick and his race team, but personally for Tony Stewart.
Tony began the 2015 season looking for redemption and his first win since Dover of 2013. What Tony found was far from redemption. The 2015 season started out and continues to be a rocky season for the #14 team. Tony failed to make the Chase again and continues to search for Victory Lane. Many speculated how long Stewart would continue to compete and if he would ever make it back to winning status. Those questions were answered yesterday when Tony announced his retirement from Sprint Cup competition following the 2016 season. Driver Clint Bowyer will take over the #14 car for the 2017 season after his race team, Michael Waltrip Racing announced its closing at the end of 2015. Clint will pilot the #51 car for HScott Motorsports for 2016.
While a younger version of myself would love the idea of Tony Stewart no longer racing, current me would love to see him continue, but understands his decision. Tony is not retiring from racing, far from it. He is just retiring from Sprint Cup. He is a racer at heart, just like all of us fans. No matter what he does or where he goes, Tony Stewart will want to race. Over the past few years I have grown a huge amount of respect for Tony, his ability in race car and his personality off track.
Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart retiring from Sprint Cup competition one season apart is the end of not only two long, impressive careers, but the end of a generation. While Jeff Gordon is a hero of mine, Tony Stewart was definitely a villain. With both of them moving on, I need a new hero and as everyone knows, every hero needs a villain.