NASCAR & Auto Racing

Tony Stewart taking final Cup ride Sunday at Homestead

Tony Stewart speaks to the media on Friday before his final Sprint Cup race which is scheduled for Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Tony Stewart speaks to the media on Friday before his final Sprint Cup race which is scheduled for Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Tony Stewart swears this is it.

After watching Jeff Gordon temporarily return to NASCAR’s Cup circuit this year after his ‘final ride’ at Homestead last November, Stewart says Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 will be his last as a Cup driver.

Gordon’s final race was supposed to be last year’s season finale at Homestead, but he came out of the television booth to fill in for a concussed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevy.

Gordon initially signed on for a few races; he ended up running in eight.

“This is it, this is the last one,” Stewart told a press corps he has often had a contentious relationship with but seemed to enjoy on Friday.

“I learned my lesson from Jeff; he tried to do someone a favor 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 retirement as a driver isn’t coming as any surprise as the 2016 season comes to a close in Homestead as he announced in 2015 this would be his final season behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet. Clint Bowyer takes over next season.

And, as much as he swears his driving days are done, Stewart vows "I’m not really going anywhere.”

Among his peers, Stewart is one of the top businessmen in the game.

Stewart not only co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas, but also owns a track in Ohio.

“The crazy thing is I wouldn’t even know what to do," he said when asked if he could live a life outside of racing. “You guys know all the entities I have. All of it revolves around racing. Since I was 8, there has never been a thought in my mind about doing things outside of racing.”

Racing is in his blood, and it’s something the guy known as "Smoke" will continue to be heavily involved in.

Stewart-Haas Racing currently has four Cup drivers (Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch and Bowyer next year) with an Xfinity team coming in 2017. Stewart, who is a two-time Cup series champ as an owner, said he’ll continue driving sprint cars on dirt tracks and will probably slip behind the wheel of his Cup cars when no one is around. “I have a lot of race cars to have fun in,” he said.

On Friday, Stewart even acknowledged his press session likely wouldn’t be his last because, as a team owner, he’ll likely be called to the stage to "answer dumb questions" once more.

“It’s not really a huge change,” Stewart said, “because 90 percent of the stuff I’m already doing, I will continue to do. … I just look at it like it’s halftime of the ballgame, honesty. This is the end of the first half, and next season we start the second half.

“It’s going to be just as much fun -- if not more fun -- than this first half was. I’m excited about finishing this chapter, but I’m really excited about starting the next chapter next year.”

What a first half it was.

Stewart, 45, won the first two Cup races held at Homestead in 1999 and 2000 and also won here in 2011 which led to his third and final series championship tying him for fifth all-time.

Stewart jumped onto the national racing scene as a 25-year-old driving in the Indy Racing League series for John Menard. Stewart won three IndyCar races as a full-time driver from 1997-98 — as well as the IRL title as a rookie — while also driving in NASCAR’s second-tier Busch Series for Joe Gibbs.

In 1999, Stewart left open wheel racing for a full-time run in stock cars. Stewart ran in the Indy 500 near his hometown of Columbus, Indiana, five times — twice as a free agent — but never finished higher than fifth.

In 2001, Stewart drove for Chip Ganassi in the 500 before flying to Charlotte later that day to drive in the Coca-Cola 600. He finished sixth at Indy and third for Gibbs at Charlotte as he became the first to complete the 1,100-mile run.

Although he didn’t win the Daytona 500 or Indy 500, Stewart did win four summer races at Daytona and won the Brickyard 400 twice.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t win a Daytona 500, a Southern 500 and most of all an Indy 500,” Stewart said. “I never even thought I would get a chance to race those races let alone in all three of them have opportunities to win the race.

“In a perfect world, yes, I would have loved to be able to cross those three off the list. But at the same time, I look at the big picture and it was pretty damn cool to just have the opportunity to go race those races.”

Not everything in Stewart’s career has been glorious, however.

Stewart missed the final 15 races in 2013 with a broken leg after a crash in a sprint car. In 2014, Stewart was involved in a sprint car accident in western New York in which driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed when he got out of his car after a wreck, walked toward Stewart’s car as it was going around the track and was struck.

A lawsuit from Ward’s family is ongoing.

“When he was racing for us, he had such a passion," Gibbs said on Friday. “This guy, I think he's special. I'm glad that he's going to continue to be in our sport, and I think we all really respect what he's done."

Tony Stewart through the years

NASCAR

▪ Cup starts: 617; Wins: 49; Top-5: 187; Top-10: 308.

Series championships: 3 (1999, 2000, 2011).

Big victories: Daytona (3 summer races), Homestead (3), Indianapolis (2), Talladega (1), Charlotte (1).

Record at Homestead: 16 starts, 3 wins; 4 top-5 finishes; 7 top-10 finishes.

Career on-track earnings: $122 million.

▪ Xfinity starts: 94; Wins: 11; Top-5: 30; Top-10: 41.

Career on-track earnings: $3 million.

▪ Truck starts: 6; Wins: 2.

IndyCar Series

Starts: 26; Wins: 3; Top-3: 7.

Series championships: 1.

Victories: Disney, Loudon, Pikes Peak.

Career on-track earnings: $2.8 million.

Indianapolis 500 – Starts: 5; Wins: 0; Best finishes: 5th in 1997, 6th in 2001.

Record at Homestead: 0 starts.

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