I guess the time’s finally here for Tony Stewart fans and maybe some other NASCAR fans to face reality — Tony Stewart’s driving career at the top level of NASCAR is coming to a close, or at least as a full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series will wrap up at the end of 2016.
The rumor of Stewart retiring from the driver’s seat after the 2016 season and Clint Bowyer going to HScott Racing for one year to wait for Stewart to retire and then replacing Stewart behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet in 2017 began back when the news came of out Michael Waltrip Racing’s demise, leaving Bowyer temporarily displaced.
But then, it just didn’t seem real, at least not to me. Heck, I even came up with a scenario that would have Furniture Row Racing expanding to two cars and Bowyer reuniting with former MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr. there, arriving complete with 5-Hour Energy sponsorship.
Maybe I should’ve seen the writing on the wall that Stewart’s driving career, at least in NASCAR, was in its twighlight. The aforementioned rumor aside, the guy’s 44 years old. Most drivers don’t continue racing at NASCAR’s top level to a ripe old age anymore. Then there’s the away-from-NASCAR issues Stewart’s had to deal with the last couple of years. I won’t go into detail, but readers know what all I’m talking about.
I won’t say that I’m a Stewart fan. I really do strive to remain neutral in my position as a NASCAR writer, I really do. But the expected announcement of Stewart’s impending retirment that will be announced midday Wednesday has seemed to hit me harder in the last few days than Jeff Gordon’s announcement during the offseason that he’d hang it up at the end of 2015.
Absolutely no slight of Gordon is intented. I have the utmost respect for Gordon and his accomplishments, just as I do for Stewart and everything he’s done in racing over the years.
Here’s my theory as to why I’ve struggled a little more with Stewart’s decision:
I started following NASCAR, first as a fan and then eventually on a professional level, in the late 1990s. Gordon was alreay at the then-Winston Cup level by then. He’d even won a couple or three championships by the time I started paying close attention.
Then, enter Stewart. Stewart’s first year at the Cup — still-Winston at that point — level was 1999. So, his rookie year at the Cup level pretty much coincides with my participation in the sport. Unlike with Gordon, I’ve witnessed Stewart’s NASCAR Winston-Nextel-Sprint Cup career from the beginning.
I’ve seen other drivers retire the last several years, none at the level of Gordon or Stewart, mind you, but I’ve seen a few NASCAR driver retirements. And that’s no slight of those other drivers, but we’re talking a couple of definite future NASCAR Hall of Famers and multi-time champions, here. That being said, Stewart’s the first driver at that level, whose entire Cup career I’ve watched, to retire.
Don’t worry, though, be you either a Gordon fan or a Stewart fan. I have a pretty good feeling we’re still going to be seeing these guys around. Gordon’s got a TV deal, and I’m assuming Stewart’s not unloading all his racing-related business holdings. I’m assuming he’s still going to be half owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. And remember, the Camping World Truck Series’ yearly venture into the dirt world is hosted by Stewart’s Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. If that’s not enough for you, maybe you need to warm up to dirt track racing. The driver affectionately known as “Smoke” probably will be a fixture at All-Star Circuit of Champions races. He does own that series, after all. Heck, maybe you’ll even see him doing track prep somewhere. Chili Bowl, anyone?
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