Tony Stewart, 'Last Old-School Driver,' Races Final Time In Charlotte
An aggressive and controversial NASCAR driver will hit the gas one last time at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday night. Tony Stewart has won three championships, become co-owner of a race team and paid numerous fines over his 18 seasons. His style has certainly created some enemies, but it's also why his fans love him and other drivers respect him.
Tony Stewart has a temper. That's been clear since his rookie season in NASCAR's top circuit in 1999.
"As you can see, Tony Stewart here was out of his car, throwing his gloves at Kenny Irwin!" the TV announcer said.
Stewart reached into Irwin's moving car and had to let go as he sped off. That was after the two drivers kept bumping each other in a Martinsville race. NASCAR fined Stewart $5,000.
In the years since, he's crashed cars, shoved drivers, punched a photographer, kicked a tape recorder, and, yes, stomped back onto the track to throw something.
Two things stand out from this incident in 2012: how the crowd roared as Stewart nailed Matt Kenseth's windshield with his helmet and how nonchalant the announcers were.
"That's a perfect strike," one said. "That's a nice throw," added another.
By then, it was just Stewart being Stewart. Matt Kenseth laughs about it now.
"Nobody likes being involved in that stuff. But whether they like to or not, everybody likes to watch it," Kenseth says with a laugh.
He says it's certainly a draw for fans. And he says the fire Stewart races with is part of what makes him great.
"Man, I've never seen anybody more talented behind the wheel than Tony," he says. "Whether it's in a dirt car or a stock car, there's nobody better."
Stewart has won all kinds of races in all kinds of cars. He was a dirt track champion and IndyCar champion before transitioning to NASCAR's top circuit. He made that transition look easy, says NBC analyst Steve Letarte, the former crew chief for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Very few people have been able to jump that gap and he was one that was able to do it - and not just do it at a slightly successful level but to be a multiyear champion at the cup level," Letarte says.
Stewart won NASCAR's Sprint Cup championship in 2002, 2005 and 2011.
He kept racing on dirt tracks too, and that led to what he calls a tragic accident in 2014. On a dirt track in New York, Stewart wrecked a young driver named Kevin Ward Jr. Ward then walked into the middle of the race to confront Stewart's car.
In a spectator's YouTube video, you see Stewart's car fishtail and Ward go under one of the tires. Ward was declared dead at a hospital.
Stewart says it was an accident, and a grand jury decided not to press charges. After that decision, Stewart said he thinks about what happened every day.
"It'll never go away," Stewart said in a press conference. "It's always going to be a part of my life the rest of my life. It's going to be a part of my life, it's going to be part of Kevin's family's life. It's never going to go away for any of us. But hopefully it'll get easier for all of us."
Ward's family sued Stewart, and that lawsuit is now playing out in federal court.
Stewart sat out a few NASCAR races before returning to the track in 2014. He says his racing family has helped him get through it all.
He's continued to drive aggressively and speak his mind. This season, NASCAR fined him $35,000 after he blasted the association for lacking a lug nut policy, which he said put drivers at risk with loose wheels.
"I don’t know if it was the delivery that got NASCAR upset or what, but the message was right," he told reporters. "I think you guys know after 17 full years of this, if I strongly believe in something, I’m going to speak up for it."
A group of NASCAR drivers paid the fine for Stewart, and NASCAR changed its lug nut policy.
In the campground at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jerry Goodin says Stewart reminds him of iconic drivers from earlier generations like Richard Petty.
"He's going to do what it takes to win," Goodin says. "He's very aggressive. He doesn't hold back, says what he wants to say."
Goodin says Stewart is the last of the old-school drivers. Another fan, Judy Wiley, said with a big laugh, "I'm old school too, so I guess that's why I like him!"
"That's the greatest thing you can say about him," Wiley continued. "He's old school, but he's a genuine, good person."
She points to the charity he's had for many years that helps critically ill children. He's also raised money for injured race car drivers and endangered animal species.
Some drivers say it's part of the generous, off-the-track version of Stewart many people don't see. Defending champion Kyle Busch says when he first started, "He put his arm around me and definitely helped me and definitely helped me and gave me some insight in how the sport is."
Busch says he now pays that forward to the next generation of drivers.
With a handful of races left, Stewart is out of the running for this year's championship. But when he announced his plan to retire, he made clear he's not going away.
"NASCAR is probably going to be the most disappointed of everybody today because they aren't getting rid of me," he said at a press conference. "They have to deal with me as an owner. There's still the opportunity to get fined and there's still the opportunity to be put on probation, just like always, just from a different capacity than now."
Stewart will remain co-owner of the Stewart-Haas racing team. He jokes that next season, you'll probably see him enjoying a race from the top of some fan's motor home.