CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart picked his way through the crowd surrounding a red carpet at Chicagoland Speedway to make his way to the pre-race driver meeting. Dance music blared from two large speakers at the front of the tent, celebrities and other dignitaries sat in special seats and fans craned their necks for a glimpse of NASCAR’s stars.
Stewart, always the last driver to arrive, was agitated as he scoured the room looking for his teammates.
“Can we get some more people in here?” he said to no one in particular. “I thought we were here to race.”
It’s no secret that NASCAR and all its pomp and circumstance have always been the necessary evil in Stewart’s storied career. NASCAR money pays his bills, has afforded him a lifestyle he never imagined, allowed him to collect toys such as ownership of race tracks and a sprint car series.
But NASCAR has never been his love.
It’s always been his job.
The sideshow that accompanies the 38 races a year? A nuisance.
So it should be no surprise that Stewart is scheduled Wednesday to announce his retirement from Sprint Cup racing at the end of the 2016 season. He will detail his decision to get out of the car, according to a person familiar with Stewart’s plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because the three-time NASCAR champion has not publicly discussed his retirement.
Stewart’s die-hard fans don’t want to believe the news. They’ve always assumed their driver, a modern-day A.J. Foyt, would race deep into his 50s and slowly scale back his schedule.
They think that because they don’t really know Stewart, and don’t understand that his decision has very little to do with the personal problems that have plagued his last three years. He broke his leg in a sprint car crash in 2013 that cost him the final third of the season; he struck and killed a young racer, Kevin Ward, during an on-track incident at a dirt track in New York in 2014; and he’s not at all competitive this season, mired in the worst slump of his career.
Any of that would be enough to push Stewart, who turns 45 next season, into retirement.
The reality, though, is that this nightmare Stewart has been living just happened to come as his career was already winding down. Stewart years ago figured out the financials to determine how long he needed to race in NASCAR. He understood the timetables put on every contract signed with a sponsor. He kept an eye on the free agent market to determine candidates to succeed him in the No. 14 Chevrolet.
In other words, Stewart had an exit plan.
Why? Because fun for Stewart is riding a four-wheeler around Eldora Speedway, the dirt track he owns in Ohio, to make sure the show is going off without a hitch. Fun for Stewart is crisscrossing Ohio during a rare off week in NASCAR to oversee the All-Star Circuit Champions of Sprint Car series he purchased in January.
His enjoyment has never been found at a NASCAR race, and this spiral he’s been stuck in the last three seasons did nothing more than confirm to Stewart that it’s time to go do something else.
He’s confided during a handful of interviews with The Associated Press over the past 12 months that his passion is gone. The euphoria from a strong finish — and really, strong finishes are all he’s shooting for right now, wins are not presently attainable — has worn off by the time he gets to his airplane after a race.
His personal struggles took a toll on him. His on-track struggles have sapped his confidence and stripped him of that feeling of invincibility he had in more than three decades of racing cars. Stewart can’t get a feel for NASCAR’s current rules package, and at times it seems like he’s accepted that he’s just not competitive anymore.
So why not stick to the exit plan and spend his time doing all the things around racing that still give him a charge? Well, leaving means filling his seat at Stewart-Haas Racing and Stewart desperately wanted Kyle Larson for the job.
Larson is available in 2017, but the particulars of his current contract didn’t fall into place with the timetable Stewart needed to execute his plan. Then Clint Bowyer became available and Stewart had his man. Bowyer will spend 2016 making laps with another team as he waits for Stewart to complete his retirement tour.
Those Stewart loyalists who are so devastated and disbelieving that this day is actually here are looking at it all wrong. Begging for another three or five or 10 years from Stewart will only tarnish his legacy. He’s led a career-low 24 laps this season, doesn’t have a single top-five finish and hasn’t won a race since midway through the 2013 season.
Watching him putter around the track, fighting to stay on the lead lap, trying hard to squeak out a top-15 finish — that’s not the way anyone wants to see Stewart go out.
Loyalists should be happy for Smoke. He’s going to exit on his own terms. He’s going to be able to do what he wants with his time. He’s going to finally have fun.