The final race of Tony Stewart’s storied NASCAR Cup career wasn’t very memorable although he got a pretty cool souvenir.
Although Stewart finished 22nd after hanging at the back of the field for much of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, he was in Victory Lane following the race celebrating with Jimmie Johnson — who gave Stewart the helmet he wore while driving toward history.
Johnson’s win Sunday gave him a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship; the customized helmet with the likeness of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty painted on the back — whom Johnson tied with his last-dash win — now goes into Stewart’s growing collection.
Stewart was feted both before and after Sunday’s race which he said is the final in his 18-year career.
Although Stewart started Sunday’s race on Row 6, he didn’t stay near the front of the pack for long as he drifted toward the back of the grid before being lapped as he stayed at least a lap down for much of the race.
It wasn’t the way Stewart wanted to go out, although he said the car he drove his last Cup race in is joining his large collection in his hometown of Columbus, Indiana.
“It came through without a scratch on it,” he said. “I’m proud of it, proud of these guys. This wasn’t exactly the way we wanted the way to go, but the race was fun.”
Stewart ends his Cup career with 618 starts, 49 victories and three Cup championship — the final of which was won at Homestead in 2011.
When Stewart headed down pit row on his way onto the track, pit crew members from each team came out to greet him.
“That,” he said, “was the highlight of the day.”
Once on the track, Stewart moved to the front of the field for a celebratory parade lap. Stewart paced the field, following a Ford truck towing a large banner which read ‘Thank you Smoke.’
▪ Sunday’s Cup race was the final one with Sprint communications as the title sponsor and NASCAR doesn’t have a replacement for 2017 just yet.
Sprint has been the title sponsor of Cup racing since 2008 after renaming NASCAR’s top series after merging with Nextel — which replaced Winston cigarettes in 2004.
“It’s taken a little longer than I thought,” said NASCAR CEO Brian France, “but it’s also a big agreement and an important agreement. It’s not just dollars and cents, but it’s a fit for us. We don’t want to announce anything certainly around this weekend.
“We’re in a good spot with that, I believe, but we’ll have to see how it finally plays out. ... I’m confident we’re going to end up in a really good spot.”
Sprint announced it would let its current contract expire following this season back in 2014.
In 2003, Nextel signed a 10-year deal with NASCAR and took over the Winston Cup branding in 2004 after 31 years. Sprint extended its deal with NASCAR for three years.
▪ France didn’t seem too pleased when asked if his public endorsement of Donald Trump in February would “raise questions” as NASCAR celebrated Mexican-born driver Daniel Suarez’s victory in the Xfinity Series on Saturday at Homestead.
Suarez came up through a diversity program championed by France and became the first foreign-born champion of a top NASCAR series.
“First of all, no one wants to hear my political views,” said France, who joined Trump on stage at a rally held at Valdosta State University in Georgia.
“Not one person on this stage wants to hear from me politically. But on my diversity, no one in this company has worked harder, done more and resourced it better than me. I founded the Diversity Council. I fought for every single thing that makes sense, because that’s my core belief about diversity. It’s very, very important. I talk about it frequently.
“And my efforts there should never be challenged, no matter what my political views might be. That’s a ridiculous thing to do.”
▪ There were a few celebrities taking in Sunday’s championship race including the Band Perry (which performed before cars hit the track), grand marshal Justin Hartley (from NBC’s This Is Us) and starter Wilmer Valderrama (from That ‘70s Show and NCIS).
Also attending Sunday’s race: baseball’s Dee Gordon (Marlins) and Yasiel Puig (Dodgers), Hall of Fame golfer Nancy Lopez and former Dolphins’ and Patriots’ receiver Wes Welker.
Hialeah’s Albert Almora Jr., who scored the go-ahead run for the Cubs in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the Word Series, was also in attendance.