By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. –Tony Stewart might be in the best shape of his life, and just in time.
At 44, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has declared this to be his final Sprint Cup season as a driver, and he’s doing everything in his power to make it memorable.
“I’m eating better, drinking better, working out, doing stuff I swore I would never do – and I’m doing it in my last year,” said Stewart, facing Thursday’s a media during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour presented by Technocom.
“I’ve changed my diet. I’ve changed everything for this year, so if anybody has any questions about how dedicated we are to having the best year we possibly could have, that’s the answer. I’m more excited about this year than I have been in a long time.”
Stewart would love to emulate the farewell season enjoyed by Jeff Gordon, who went into the final race of the 2015 season with a shot at his fifth Sprint Cup title.
“That was 99 percent of a perfect (final) season,” Stewart said. “I don’t have any grand illusions that I’m going to have that kind of year. It may or may not be in our cards. We’re going to give 100 percent, but the main focus will be to have fun this last year. If we can go out and win races and have an opportunity, trust me, I’ll be ready.”
In his dream scenario, Stewart said he would win the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 at Darlington, and a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway to give him checkered flags at every track on the circuit.
Kurt Busch said he wouldn’t put anything past Stewart, who is both his teammate and boss.
“Jeff Gordon had a fantastic final season. I don’t see why Tony Stewart can’t do the same thing,” he said. “He’s a three-time champion in stock cars, he’s a champion from open-wheel … he’s won in everything. Having a teammate and a car owner going through a retirement tour, there will be times when I’ll be giving that extra five percent on a given day to help him out.”
Stewart knows that two more victories would get him to 50, but even one victory would be enough to get him to the Chase with a shot at one last title. No matter what, he insists this will be his Sprint Cup swan song.
“Even if we went out there and won 15 races and won the championship, we’re done,” he said. “When Homestead happens, no matter how the year went, we’re done. If it’s a terrible year, I’m not going to sit there and go, ‘Wow, that defined my career,’ because the stats will define how we did over 18 years.”
Stewart’s past two seasons have not been indicative of his 48 career wins and 300 top-10 finishes in 590 Sprint Cup starts. He has not won a race since June 2, 2013 at Dover and failed to notch a top-five finish last season.
There have been extenuating circumstances – a broken leg which halted his 2013 season and the tragic incident in August 2014, when Stewart struck and killed a fellow competitor while running a caution lap during a sprint car race in upstate New York.
Although it will be Stewart’s final season as a Cup driver, he’ll remain active as a co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas, participating in the day-to-day operations of a high-profile team with championship expectations.
“I think we have two guys who definitely have a great opportunity to race for a championship (this year),” said Stewart, referring to 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick and Busch, a former champ who finished eighth in points last season.
Only Kyle Busch stood between Kevin Harvick and a second consecutive Sprint Cup title. Harvick, who turned 40 in December, has eight victories in his two seasons with Stewart-Haas. He registered career highs in top 10s (23) and laps led last season when he also matched his career-best with an average finishing position of 8.7.
Kurt Busch had two victories and three poles in 2015. Matching a career high with 21 top-10 finishes (in 33 starts), Busch finished eighth in points. “We need to bump it up another spot,” he said. “We know we did good things (but) we need more top fives.”
That leaves Danica Patrick, now 34, who has yet to register a top-five finish in 118 Sprint Cup starts. She managed a pair of top 10s last season – a seventh at Martinsville and a ninth at Bristol – but finished no better than 15th in any of her final 28 races.
“Clearly, I need to be able to finish better to be able to make the Chase,” said Patrick, who has replaced Go Daddy with Nature’s Bakery as her primary sponsor.
“She understands how the cars work,” said Haas, noting that Patrick has been teamed with a new crew chief in Billy Scott. “She understands all the ins and outs of racing a Cup car. Now, it’s time for her to concentrate on going faster. We realize she’s a unique talent out there and we’re just trying to find a more accurate combination that will provide better results.
Stewart, for his part, continues to publicly supportive on NASCAR’s most prominent female competitor.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take. I still stand behind the fact that she hasn’t spent a ton of time in these cars,” Stewart said. “You can say she’s been in the Cup Series for four years, but most guys by the time they’ve got to the Cup Series have had a lot of time in a stock car. She did not have that.
“So, I would say if she just keeps making forward progress, that that’s going to be a good year. It’s so hard to pinpoint and say ‘this is what the goal is. This is what we expect. If her stats get better than what they were last year, that’s what we look at as improvement. As long as we’re moving the needle forward and not backward, that’s what we want to do.”
Image: Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images