Stewart: ‘Right time’ to pit

Tony Stewart’s decision to retire from the NASCAR Sprint Cup series after next year was a move he began considering early this year.

During a Wednesday afternoon news conference from his Stewart-Haas Racing headquarters in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Stewart used the opportunity to let race fans and the national media understand why he reached that conclusion.

The Columbus native, 44, hasn’t won a race in more than two years and is mired in 25th place in the point standings. But Stewart said he likely would have reached the same decision even if he had been more competitive.

“It’s not performance-based,” Stewart said. “It’s the right time.”

He also called the decision “100 percent mine.”

“There wasn’t any pressure from anybody,” Stewart said. “If anything, it was just the opposite.

“It’s nothing that you plan,” he said. “It’s kind of a bittersweet day. I’m kind of excited about it, but I’m sad about it, as well.”

The decision was solidified recently when Michael Waltrip Racing announced that it was closing operations at the end of the year, and one of its top drivers, Clint Bowyer, would become available.

Stewart and co-owner Gene Haas announced during the news conference that Bowyer would replace Stewart on the racing team beginning in the 2017 season.

“It’s the right time. It’s the right opportunity; and when someone like Clint became available this year, you jump at those opportunities,” Stewart said. “I felt like it was the right time for me to make a change and had the perfect driver for us.”

A three-time Cup champion, Stewart has endured a trying 26 months. He suffered a broken leg in a sprint-car race in Iowa in August 2013 and missed the rest of the NASCAR season.

Then last August, Stewart’s car struck and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. after the 20-year-old walked onto the track to confront Stewart following an accident in a sprint-car race in upstate New York. Stewart did not face criminal charges but is facing a civil suit from Ward’s family.

Stewart said that incident had “zero percent” to do with his decision to retire from the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit and that he would likely return to racing sprint cars on occasion.

“The tragedy — nothing is going to change that,” Stewart said. “It happened, but it’s not going to direct the rest of my life.”

Stewart plans to continue in his role as an owner with Stewart-Haas Racing, a role he has held since 2009. The organization currently has four drivers — Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.

“It’s been a quick seven years,” Haas said, describing the period as marked by early struggles.

“We had all the fundamental pieces, and I think that’s what Tony saw,” Haas said. “Tony brought the talent, and I had the foundation here. But without Tony, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The value was in the combination of the two of us.”

Stewart called his third Sprint Cup championship in 2011 the highlight of his career.

“It wasn’t about a personal victory,” Stewart said. “It was about a group victory. The way that all happened the last 10 weeks (of 2011), I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to top that.”

The 2016 season will be somewhat of a farewell tour for Stewart, similar to what Jeff Gordon has gone through this season. But Stewart isn’t looking for parting gifts.

“I have enough rocking chairs,” Stewart said. “I think what the fans and tracks have done for Jeff Gordon is great. I’m content to go race and being around the racing community. They can just give me a note from the track president, and that will be enough for me.”

Stewart, who raced Indy cars before jumping to NASCAR in 1999, said he has no plans to compete in the Indy 500 in the future. He also said he doesn’t plan to venture into television work.

However, Stewart did leave open the possibility of driving in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series and said he wants to drive trucks at the track he owns, Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio.

Stewart also said he would like to spend more time at his home on the west side of Columbus.

“I’ve been home 21 days this year total,” Stewart said. “I don’t think I’ll get to spend half the year there. Especially this time of year, I like fall and I like being home when the leaves change. I don’t like long walks on the beach.”

Brian France, NASCAR chairman and executive officer, called Stewart’s announcement bittersweet.

“When I think of Tony Stewart, unmatched passion and a pure love of the sport come to mind,” France said in a statement. “He has won championships and millions of fans. But he has given back so much more, and that’s what I admire most. Today’s news was bittersweet for all, but we know Tony will continue to be a big part of our sport in his roles as a team and track owner. On behalf of the entire NASCAR family, I thank Tony for his many years of excellence and competitiveness and wish him nothing but the best in his final season as a driver in the Sprint Cup Series.”

Stewart said he won’t miss the grind of the Sprint Cup schedule and will welcome the opportunity to do things outside racing.

“There were some days I felt like a dealer at a blackjack table, and at the end of the day, I clapped my hands and walked away,” Stewart said.

“There’s a lot of personalities in my head I’ve had to talk to lately,” he said. “It’s like a chat room. There’s days I can’t wait. You battle back and forth. This is a major decision, obviously, and that’s what makes it so hard to make a change like this.”

Stewart driver highlights
  • Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion (2002, 2005, 2011)
  • 48 career Sprint Cup race wins
  • 1997 IndyCar Series champion
  • United States Auto Club Rookie of the Year (1991) and the USAC Midget champion (1994)
  • International Karting Federation Grand National champion (1983) and World Karting Association grand champion (1987)
  • Won the 4-cycle rookie junior class at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds (1980)

Tony Stewart

Age: 44

Marital status: Single

Hometown: Columbus

Family: Father, Nelson Stewart; mother Pam Boas, who is involved with the Stewart Foundation; and a sister, Natalie, who assists with the Tony Stewart Fan Club along with their mother.

Profession: Drives the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Co-owner with Gene Haas of Stewart-Haas Racing.

Stewart's business interests

Tony Stewart has financial interests in the following businesses:

  • Purchased All-Star Circuit of Champions Sprint Car series in January.
  • Co-owner, Stewart-Haas Racing, fielding entries in the Sprint Car series.
  • Eldora Speedway, a dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.
  • True Speed Communication, a marketing and public relations agency specializing in motorsports.
  • Tony Stewart Racing, with entries in USAC Sprint Cars, USAC Silver Crown Series and World of Outlaws Sprint Series
  • Macon Speedway, one of Illlinois’ oldest racetracks.
  • Paducah International Raceway, Paducah, Kentucky.
  • Custom Works R/C Cars, remote control cars company headquartered in Denver, North Carolina.

Pull Quote

“There were some days I felt like a dealer at a blackjack table, and at the end of the day, I clapped my hands and walked away. There’s a lot of personalities in my head I’ve had to talk to lately. It’s like a chat room. There’s days I can’t wait. You battle back and forth. This is a major decision, obviously, and that’s what makes it so hard to make a change like this.”

Tony Stewart, co-owner Stewart-Haas Racing

Pull Quote

“It’s been a quick seven years. We started in 2009, and we were one of those back-marker teams. It was really a struggle. We had all the fundamental pieces, and I think that’s what Tony saw. Tony brought the talent, and I had the foundation here; but without Tony, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The value was in the combination of the two of us.”

Gene Haas, co-owner Stewart-Haas Racing

Author photo
Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.