By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
We’re supposed to be drumming up the fact that Tony Stewart is heading into his final Daytona 500. It’s supposed to be a fun year-long send off for one of NASCAR’s all-time greats. Unfortunately it starts off with the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, and winner of 48 races stuck in a hospital room.
We don’t know Stewart’s status for the Daytona 500 just yet, we won’t find that out likely until Thursday afternoon or later, but regardless it’s not the news the sports world hoped Stewart’s final season would begin with.
Behind the wheel of a race car Stewart has always had pure talent. As a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (then Winston Cup) in 1999, Stewart was still climbing the steep learning curve of transitioning between driving open wheeled cars, and being in heavier more powerful stock cars. It’s a transition that many talented drivers over the years (Dario Franchitti, Juan Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve) have failed to successfully complete.
In Stewart’s first season in the top series of NASCAR, he won three times, finished inside the top-10 in 21 of 34 starts and ended the year fourth in the point standings. Let that sink in for a moment. That just doesn’t happen for anyone, but Stewart isn’t anyone. He is a wheelman by the truest definition of the term.
Behind the wheel of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stock car — or any car really — Stewart has done some of the most remarkable things we’ve ever seen. Frustratingly his temper has often gotten the better of him over the years.
NASCAR hit the big time with “The Fight” in the 1979 Daytona 500. Every time a driver gets into an altercation, fans get excited and magic is made, and NASCAR encourages it — that is until a line in crossed. Stewart over the years has been a fan favorite, and one of the main reasons is because he doesn’t waste any opportunity to throw down.
Anger management loomed over Stewart’s first few years in NASCAR.
In 1999, Stewart had a continuation of a feud with Kenny Irwin Jr. that stemmed from their days in the USAC ranks. Stewart also had a couple of heated exchanges with Jeff Gordon in his first few seasons. But everything came to a head after the 2002 Brickyard 400. Stewart sat on the pole that day, and led 43 of 160 laps, but when he crossed the finish line in the 12th position, ‘Smoke’ was seeing red.
It was a hot Indiana day, with temperatures of over 90-degrees, and Stewart who has always dreamed of winning a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway had failed to do so again. He just wanted a moment to himself. Stewart would have an encounter after climbing out of the car that would lead to the assault of a photographer. Stewart crossed the line that day, and would be placed on probation by NASCAR, and his sponsor at the time — The Home Depot. The probation also required Stewart to attend anger management classes.
Stewart would dig deep, and would come out of the treatment a better man, and a somehow more focused driver. He would overcome the odds and went on to win the 2002 Winston Cup title.
Over the many years since his anger management stint, Stewart has thrown helmets, tossed middle fingers and has gotten into physical confrontations with many more drivers.
Despite the distractions in the scrum of fights, Stewart still was able to collect checkered flags and championships in NASCAR’s premier series. His pure talent was able to show through even the most drama-filled off track incidents. Stewart always rose above.
In recent years though, Stewart’s extra curricular activities have been his undoing.
In 2013, after having several spectacular incidents at local dirt tracks in winged sprint cars, Stewart finally ran out of racing luck. While leading at Southern Iowa Speedway with five laps remaining in a 30 lap main, Stewart was collected by a lapped car. His powerful sprint car began a violent tumble, and when it landed Stewart had a broken right tibia and fibula. He would miss the final 15 races of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series schedule.
Stewart is a guy that loves to live life on his own terms, so upon returning to Sprint Cup Series competition he scoffed when people asked if his 2013 crash would lead to him no longer racing sprint cars.
Stewart would fight a tough battle coming back from multiple leg surgeries, and when he was back he continued racing winged sprint cars in his free time away from the NASCAR schedule.
Then all hell broke loose in Canadaigua, New York.
Stewart made contact with a young driver named Kevin Ward Jr. while they were in the closing laps of a race at Canadaigua Speedway on August 9th, 2014. Unhappy with the incident, Ward climbed from his car to confront Stewart. As Stewart drove by, Ward approached Stewart’s car, that proved to be Ward’s last decision he’d ever make. Ward would slam into the rear tire of Stewart’s car, and he would die instantly at the age of 20.
What ensued was a long legal battle, which cleared Stewart of any criminal wrongdoing. However, Stewart who was visibly shaken in the months following the incident still faces a civil case in the near future.
The past three seasons of Stewart’s career have been mired with injury, tragedy and seemingly endless distraction.
Now, Stewart’s final season faces uncertainty after the apparent decision to get behind the wheel of an all-terrain vehicle on the west coast.
I know there is a chance that Thursday afternoon we could hear the news that we’ll never see Stewart behind the wheel of a stock car ever again, but I just can’t accept that as a possibility. Compared to what Stewart has been through over the past three years, an ATV crash seems very mild. I have to believe that nothing can keep Stewart down, and he will rise again. Through the last 17 years Stewart has shown us one thing, that he’s a fighter. Never count this man out.
Image: NASCAR Media Group