In the midst of celebrating his first win in three years, Tony Stewart took a moment at Sonoma Raceway to look ahead to the future once he steps out of the driver’s seat for the final time when the checkered flag flies at Homestead in November.
Stewart’s departure at season’s end marks the second top tier driver to step away from the cockpit in as many years with Jeff Gordon vacating the No. 24 car at the end of 2015. With both Stewart and Gordon no longer driving, the focus turns to the stout 2016 rookie class, as well as some young guns in other NASCAR divisions to fill the void as veterans and superstars of the sport will continue to retire in the coming years.
The two drivers currently in the Cup Series that have been drawing the most focus in their first full-time seasons are of course Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, with both drivers finding themselves in the top-five and top-10 more often than not over the first 16 races of the season. Elliott leads the way with six top-five finishes and 11 top-10 finishes, while Blaney is not far behind with one top-five finish and six top-10 finishes thus far in 2016.
So what does Stewart think the future of NASCAR looks like as he will be stepping away in five months time?
“You see Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, there’s two guys right there that are filling seats that got this under control. Brian France, I got in trouble ‑‑ well, I started to say I got in trouble once with Brian France. That’s a lie. I got in trouble a lot with Brian France, but I got in trouble enough one day that I got invited to fly down to Daytona Beach, Florida, and go to his office where I sat in the lobby for 30 minutes waiting on him and then I was only in there for 10 minutes and then I got to drive back and fly home,” Stewart said.
“But I remember him telling me, and I’m only saying this because it’s the truth, he was right, and it was something that resonated. He was like, you’re not bigger than the sport. You’re a star in the sport, but there were stars before you and there’s stars coming after you.
“With Jeff and I leaving, Chase Elliott is going to win a championship, and if the Wood Brothers keep going the way they are, Ryan Blaney is going to win a lot of races, too, and potentially win championships. There’s plenty of stock coming along that’s got the opportunity to have fantastic finishes and make big names for themselves and 10 years down the road Gordon and I will be like ‑‑ the new people watching the sport are going to be, who are these old guys? I’m going to go this is the guy who took me to the sand dunes and broke my back. He’ll probably do it again. But we’ll have fun. The sport is healthy, trust me. There’s plenty of good drivers.
“I’m meeting new drivers every day that are in the wings that are running K&N cars. The hard part for us is you used to read about them in the paper because they were winning a late model race here or there. These are 16‑year‑old kids that just got out of ‑‑ they’re not even out of high school so it’s hard to know who they are. I didn’t know who William Byron was and the kid wins a truck race. I’m like, how did that happen. Then he won another one. There’s plenty of talent that’s coming along. They won’t miss us in about 10 years.”