Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Smoke will retire after 2016; Bowyer will step into the No. 14 in 2017 "smelling like roses"

Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs  
Today Tony Stewart announced he will retire from racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series following the 2016 season.

Since 1999, Stewart has been a towering fixture of the Cup Series. His numbers are legendary: 17 years, 582 races, 48 wins, nearly 13,000 laps led, an average finish of 13.7 over his entire Sprint Cup career, and of course, three championships. Stewart is the only driver who won a Winston Cup championship, a Nextel Cup championship and a Sprint Cup championship, and the only driver to win under both the old points system and the Chase system. He's also the only driver to hoist the series championship trophy in both NASCAR and IndyCar.

His aggressive racing style and brash personality won him millions of fans -- and plenty of haters. But no one can argue that Tony Stewart isn't one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time.

"I think it's a scenario where everybody in their career at some point makes the decision that it's time for a change," he said. "It's nothing that you plan. I think deep down you know when it's time to make a change like this."

He will not be retiring from racing entirely, however; he left the option open to continue to race other series, and will turn his focus to being a team owner in NASCAR. He unequivocally stated he will not be racing in the Indianapolis 500, but he didn't rule out running in any other type of racing.

Relaxed and excited, Stewart talked about his future plans -- working with Stewart-Haas Racing, traveling to see an F1 race with team co-owner Gene Haas and racing whenever he wants. Stewart also didn't miss a chance to poke at NASCAR in his usual sarcastic fashion.

Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
"I'm not stepping away from the sport I love," Stewart said. "I'm still going to be at the track harassing everyone. NASCAR is probably going to be the most disappointed because they aren't getting rid of me. They have to deal with me as an owner."

Stewart said he had considered retiring at the end of 2015, but after seeing how much it has meant to Jeff Gordon's fans to see him race one more year, he decided to offer the same to his own fans.

"The reason we decided to run through the end of next  year is 100 percent because of the fans that have supported us through the years," he said. "It's important to me to be able to do this for our fans who have stuck with us through thick and thin and supported us. It's as important for me to do this for them as it is for me to do what I'm doing for my future."

Don't expect him to just ride around the track next year, however. They're going to do everything they can to win races and a championship. For all his wins, Stewart has never won the Daytona 500 or the Southern 500, and he wants to add those to his resume before he leaves the driver's seat.

Gene Haas, Stewart's co-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing, credited Stewart with the surge in success the team has seen since its inception in 2011.

"Without Tony, we would never have turned out into the super team that we are now, winning two championships," Haas said. "He brings the talent, he brings the sponsors. I had the foundation, and you put those two together, and you had a NASCAR superstar team."

Stewart will be an owner-driver for one more year, after which he will hang up his helmet and turn the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet over to current Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer.
Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images

"What an unbelievable opportunity," Bowyer said, "just to think how my year started. You thought you were set, then all of a sudden you're not, then all of a sudden that led to a door opening in one of the biggest powerhouses in the sport.

"Do you ever hear that term 'when you fall in a pile of cow manure and come out smelling like roses?' That's exactly what this is for me," he said, laughing.

Bowyer, who has driven the No. 15 MWR Toyota since 2012, has worked with several of the drivers and crew chiefs at SHR. He was teammates at Richard Childress Racing with Kevin Harvick from 2004 to 2012, and worked with Rodney Childers, Harvick's current crew chief, at MWR from 2008 to 2012. He believes the fit with Stewart-Haas Racing couldn't be any better.

"There's so many good people here, and that's why they have the success that they do," he said.

Stewart is going out on his own terms. The decision, he said, was 100 percent his, and nothing was ever part of a master plan.

"There was not one factor that led to this other than just I felt like it was the right time," he said. "Everything in racing is timing, and the opportunity to get someone like Clint Bowyer, I mean, that's when you seize the opportunity. We've put the right guy behind the steering wheel moving forward."

Many wondered if the injuries and tragedy of the last several years had any bearing on Stewart's decision. Not one percent, he said.

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
"This is strictly what I want to do, and my leg feels fine. The tragedy, nothing is going to change that," he said. "It happened, but it's not going to direct the rest of my life. I'm still going to race when I want to race, but as far as the [Sprint] Cup Series, it had no bearing on that."

Jeff Gordon has been lauded and honored at nearly every track during this, his "swan song" year of racing. Stewart does not want any part of that. He wants to race and be with his racing family and fans.

"I'm not really that kind of guy. I think it's been very fitting for Jeff," he said. "I don't think I'm worthy of that admiration because I think that Jeff has really done so much for the sport that nobody will ever be able to do again. I think that kind of celebration is reserved for somebody like Jeff."

Others in the sport reacted to Stewart's announcement. His teammate and close friend Kevin Harvick wrote on Instagram. "As the world learns about Tony retiring today I have to admit I've known about this for awhile and really struggled to put my arms around what I think about it. I've seen Tony as my driver, my boss, and my friend but in the end I want to see him smile and be happy in his life. Tony has done a great deal for not only my family, but the sport we all love! Proud to call you my friend!"

Jeff Gordon tweeted, "Incredible contribution @TonyStewart has made on & off the track. Thanks Tony! Looking forward to calling your final Daytona 500 next year!"

Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
Tony Stewart isn't going to be driving the No. 14 Chevrolet after next year, but he'll still be around the track. He has too much fun not to keep racing, and he's too good at it and too driven by the competition of it all to stop.

"I made my father a promise when we first started racing when I was eight years old, and he made me promise him that the day I didn't have fun doing it I wouldn't do it anymore, and I never forgot that."

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