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NASCAR’s popularity will take another hit with 2016 retirement of Tony Stewart

NASCAR driver Tony Stewart is scheduled Wednesday to announce his retirement from Sprint Cup racing at the end of the 2016 season.
NASCAR driver Tony Stewart is scheduled Wednesday to announce his retirement from Sprint Cup racing at the end of the 2016 season. Getty Images

Tony Stewart occasionally started or participated in wars with the racing media. During one of the wars, I was able to swoop in and spend time with him. We talked off and on for a season.

Stewart, 44, will officially announce his retirement Wednesday in an auditorium at Stewart-Haas Racing in Kannapolis. He’ll retire not from racing but from, after the 2016 season, racing in NASCAR Sprint Cup. As long as there are cars, Stewart will be involved. Stock cars, open wheel cars, small cars, big cars, he’s raced them all. If cars were eliminated, he’d find something else.

I know football players, basketball players, baseball players and boxers who love their sport as much as an athlete can. Stewart loves his sport as much as any of them love theirs. It wasn’t as if racing was a vehicle he could ride to fame. Fame kind of got in the way, but the money that accompanied it enabled him to do what he wanted to do. He wanted to drive cars fast.

At Daytona International Speedway one February, we were walking past an ESPN set where Jim Kelly was being interviewed. Kelly, of course, was a star quarterback for the Miami Hurricanes and the Buffalo Bills. In 2002, the first year in which he was eligible, Kelly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If you follow football even peripherally, you recognize Kelly.

Stewart nodded at the set.

“Who’s that guy?” he asked.

The answer was obvious. He’s a guy who doesn’t drive a race car.

Stewart won the USAC Triple Crown when he was 24. He won the Indy Racing League championship when he was 26. He won NASCAR’s Sprint Cup championship when he was 31, 34 and 40. Few have been better.

But all those miles came with a price. In Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 2013 he was involved in a scary wreck. The car flipped, a wheel broke off and went rolling down the track. Stewart fractured the fibula and tibia in his right leg, and missed the final 15 Sprint Cup races.

Stewart, who seemed more comfortable on any track than in a luxury motor home, was criticized for racing outside NASCAR. How dare he? I mean, he’s one of the best drivers in NASCAR history. But come on. Isn’t there an appeal to taking on local legends on local tracks?

That appeal ended in 2014. On a track about 90 miles east of Buffalo, he ran over a local driver, Kevin Ward Jr. They had been caught up in a wreck. Ward, who wore a black fire suit and a black helmet, got out of his car and walked onto a section of the track that was more dimly lit than other parts. He apparently wanted to confront Stewart.

Stewart, who says he never saw Ward, was absolved of criminal charges. Ward’s parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

How do you drive away and remain who you are? You don’t. This season, Stewart is 25th in points, one place behind one of his drivers, Danica Patrick.

Racing looked easy for Stewart. I’m not saying he doesn’t work. Of course, he does. But he has the gift.

He also has a half-mile track, Eldora Speedway, the Big E, in Rossburg, Ohio. He owns teams in NASCAR and open wheel. He promotes races. As a track owner and car owner, he works sanctioning bodies. He works with his drivers. His experience might be as varied and as extensive as anybody in the garage.

Stewart is three months older than Jeff Gordon, who will cease to run Cup races after this season. When NASCAR loses champion drivers such as Gordon and Stewart, the sport immediately becomes less than it was. It doesn’t have to stay there. New drivers, many of whom have a personality, will emerge.

But it’s difficult to imagine a driver who’s anything like Stewart. Man, he had a temper, and probably still does. He’d sling a helmet at the windshield of a driver who offended him and go after officials, photographers and writers for transgressions real or not so real.

That all feels old now. So does Stewart – not because of his age but because of what he represents. He’s a racer. Instead of adding muscle and shedding calories in the gym, he trains by driving fast on asphalt, dirt and clay.

When he walks into a room, you know it. When he drives onto a track, you know it, too.

NASCAR’s popularity took a hit when drivers who appear to be working class, drivers who just want to race, began to disappear.

They’ve lost one more.

Wonder if the next young driver who breaks big will know who Jim Kelly is?       

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