Senior staff writer
Tony Stewart likes to have fun, especially at short tracks and dirt tracks.
The Hoosier competitor is a graduate of the Indianapolis Speedrome, the paved “bullring” on the Southeastside, where he was a USAC Regional Midget Series Rookie of the Year. USAC’s only triple crown champion returned to the track last year when being honored on Tony Stewart night. At the end of last year he won a B main and qualified for the A main at the prestigious Chili Bowl midget extravaganza in Tulsa, Okla., which he won in 2002 and 2007.
Even his Stewart-Haas Racing co-drivers realize that he thrives on returning to his roots to have some fun away from the rigors of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition and team ownership.
Stewart’s fun has proven to be costly and has tainted his legacy.
He suffered a fractured back in a dune buggy accident Jan. 31 in Southern California while in the company of racers Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace and former NASCAR team owner Ray Evernham.
Stewart’s recovery will be lengthy, according to reports, and he is not expected to return to racing until the NASCAR nonpoints All-Star race May 21 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers will drive the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet in Sunday’s Daytona 500; thus, Stewart retires with never having won NASCAR’s most prestigious event.
In four years Stewart has missed races three times due to two off-NASCAR events and the latest accident. He suffered a broken right leg in 2013 at Southern Iowa Speedway in a sprint car accident and missed the last 15 Sprint Cup races. He missed three races after the mishap in 2014 that involved the death of a 20-year-old competitor at a New York dirt track.
The two-time Brickyard 400 winner raced in all Cup events last year but finished a career-worst 28th in the standings.
Late last year Stewart announced that 2016 would be his last full-time Cup season. He wants to race midgets and sprints, mostly on dirt, and would like to try off-road racing and take a few practice laps on a road course in one of co-team owner Gene Haas’ Formula One cars.
Weeks before his Jan. 31 injury he nixed racing again in the Indianapolis 500, where he competed five times with a best finish of fifth in 1997, the same year he won the IndyCar championship.
“Absolutely not,” he replied to the often-asked question. “I’m 45 years old, and that’s not the time to be driving in the 500. If I want to go to the race, I can go and I can watch the cars.”
Stewart’s Cup career features three championships, 48 wins, 15 poles and $122.1 million in winnings. He has not won a race since June 2, 2013, at Dover, 95 races ago.
“When I started racing I didn’t have a clue when the end would be,” he said. “The big focus this year is to have fun; I’ll be going 100 percent for the win.”
Stewart-Haas Racing has won three Cup championships in the last five years. The team’s drivers are Stewart, fellow champs Kevin Harvick (2014) and Kurt Busch (2015) and former Daytona 500 pole winner Danica Patrick.
The Columbus, Ind., resident will have no problem keeping busy in retirement. He owns Eldora Speedway in Ohio, co-owns tracks in Paducah, Ky., and Macon, Ill., and owns the defending World of Outlaws championship team and a national sprint car series.
Stewart intends to have more fun in his last Cup season, which he truly deserves, but it will be painful.