Monday, October 3, 2016

Tony Stewart won't win a Championship in his last season

tony stewart

Tony Stewart was officially dropped from NASCAR's Chase for the Championship as he finished outside the top 12 in championship points in yesterday's Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover and thus won't be able to move on to the next round of elimination races. Martin Truex Jr. won that race, establishing himself as a solid threat to win this year's Sprint Cup title.

But Stewart's finish puts the final kibosh on what some of his ardent fans had hoped would be a fairy tale finish to his career in racing. Jeff Gordon got a chance at that sort of finish last year, though I doubt anyone really thought he had a legitimate chance at winning a title going out the door. Same with Stewart this year.

Starting the year on the DL after breaking his back in a dune buggy incident, Stewart had to hope he could point himself into the Chase like Kyle Busch did last year. Stewart did indeed make the top 30 in points, but it was his typically Tony Stewart win at Sonoma that put him solidly into the Chase. Leading the race towards the end, Stewart was passed by the much faster Denny Hamlin on the last lap. Stewart went after Hamlin like a pit bull and pushed Hamlin's car out of the way on the last corner to win the race and get into the Chase.

Tony Stewart is a throwback racer, an old school hard nosed driver in this day of triathletes and underwear models behind the wheel. He invokes drivers like Dale Earnhart Sr., Cale Yarborough, and the like. I've mentioned this before, but when Stewart started his own race team, he wanted to bring the number 14 back into NASCAR. That number is of course iconic to the famous A.J. Foyt and Stewart went to Foyt to get his permission to use the number. Foyt agreed immediately because he saw in Stewart a kindred spirit -- a guy who was only happy behind the wheel and had that checkers or wreckers mentality in a race.

You don't hear much talk about it these days, but back when Foyt was winning his four Indy titles, legitimately not via rain shortened races like the Unsers, A.J. would spend the day prior to Indy racing at a dirt track. He said it got him back to his roots prior to the biggest race of the year.

Stewart as many know, owns his own speedway in Eldora, hosts races and in fact the two biggest setbacks in his career came in dirt track incidents. One was the tragic death of Kevin Ward Jr. when the young driver ran out onto the track to confront Stewart and was hit by Tony's car. The other was his broken leg suffered when his dirt track car flipped over in a crash during a race. I have to wonder whether these two incidents, happening in such close succession expedited his decision to move to full time ownership of his team.

If it isn't obvious, Stewart is my favorite driver, for a lot of reasons. I like his attitude and ability behind the wheel. He's been successful at every level he's competed in, being the only driver to win Championships in both open wheel -- IndyCar Racing league in 1997 and three NASCAR championships in 2002, 2005, and 2011. He's driven in the 24 hours of Daytona, and pretty much done everything you can think of behind the wheel of a race car. He is probably the last of the driver's driver in racing today.

Clint Bowyer replaces Stewart in the number 14 next season as Tony transitions to full time owner of Stewart-Haas racing. The team is also moving to Ford, completing their extrication from Hendrick Motorsports that helped get the team off the ground in the first place.

I'm not overly enthused about Bowyer, but I guess he's the best guy available. Stewart-Haas will have it's hands full next season, getting Bowyer up to speed, trying to get Danica more competitive and generally coping with the change in equipment. Here's hoping they're successful. Tony Stewart has made racing fun to watch for me for a lot of years. I'm going to miss him. Not sure who to root for now.

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