Happy, healthy Stewart leaving NASCAR so he can race more
By MIKE CRANSTON
LAS VEGAS (AP) Tony Stewart sat in a casino ballroom wearing a coat and tie he no doubt wanted to rip off and brushed off a question about whether he was happy his NASCAR career was over.
"It's not over yet," Stewart said. "Still got a banquet."
And Stewart wanted no part of being called a retiree, either.
"That's the funniest part about everybody saying we're retiring because my schedule is probably going to be twice as hectic as it was this year," he said. "But it's stuff that I'm looking forward to, so I think it's going to be a lot of fun."
Stewart's signature biting and cutting remarks arrived on cue this week at NASCAR's awards event that culminated with Friday night's season-ending banquet. But Stewart was constantly smiling, too, as he goes through the final paces and duties before ending his 18-year career as a driver on NASCAR's top circuit.
"This was not the way we would have scripted our last season in the sport by any means, but it's still been a lot of fun," Stewart said, referring to the offseason broken back that kept him out of the Daytona 500. "But I'm glad with the way it's ended up and I'm ready to start the next chapter."
The three-time series champion overcame his ATV accident to win at Sonoma - his first victory since 2013 - and qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs before being eliminated in the first round.
"It wasn't the way we wanted to finish the year, but we were glad we were one of 16 teams that had the opportunity," Stewart said.
The driver nicknamed Smoke finished with 49 wins in 618 races and didn't hesitate when asked about his favorite memories of his final season.
"I think it's two things," he said. "Obviously, the win at Sonoma was big. That was a place I really enjoy and to race somebody I really respect in Denny (Hamlin) like that. We both leaned on each other and knew at the end of the day there was nothing personal with it. That's what made it fun.
"And I think going down pit road to start the race at Homestead was probably the coolest moment of the year for me."
Stewart was honored at the season-ending race that saw Jimmie Johnson win his seventh series title. And while Johnson was the headline for Friday's awards show, Stewart has been the center of attention this week on the Las Vegas Strip.
Thursday night's fan event turned into an impromptu Stewart roast that included a surprise appearance by his boyhood hero, four-time Indianapolis 500 champion A.J. Foyt.
"The only thing I told Tony when he started was, `Don't act like I do because I acted like a fool many times,'" Foyt said. "How do you think that worked out?"
Stewart will be long remembered for his fiery temper, but also his pure driving skills and love of the sport at the grassroots level. One of the reasons he stepped away from NASCAR was so he could schedule 50-60 races on dirt tracks next season.
"And it's going to be in a lot of different types of cars," Stewart said.
So you'll still see Stewart behind the wheel. And he'll continue his NASCAR presence as a team owner.
Stewart has no regrets with stepping away as a NASCAR driver at age 45. And he joked he's really leaving, taking a shot at Jeff Gordon, who retired then came back to fill in for the injured Dale Earnhardt.
Stewart leaves feeling healthy and, of course, feisty.
"If I had known I was going to feel this good after breaking my back I would have broke my back 15 years ago," Stewart said. "We thought at the end of this year that we were going to have two surgeries to take rods and screws out of my leg and my back. But meeting with the surgeons they said everything is looking so good that we don't really want to aggravate anything.
"I feel great. I'm excited I don't have to go under the knife again and, hopefully, I can make it through January without having to go back to the hospital."
Updated December 2, 2016