Tony Stewart’s 2016 NASCAR swan song has already given motorsports fans the indelible memory of a last-corner pass at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June that preceded one of the more emotional victory lane celebrations of the season.
It was a victory that likely earned the 49-time winner a place in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs and, given recent success and his historic prowess in Chase races, the three-time champion will likely add to his career highlight reel this summer and fall.
Since announcing in September he would make 2016 his 18th and final season of Sprint Cup racing, it was obvious this Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway might be one of the landmark races of the season. After 17 Brickyard 400s, five Indianapolis 500s, three IROC races and a lifetime of reverence, Tony Stewart will say a final farewell to the track he’s admired since his boyhood growing up in nearby Columbus, Indiana.
Some of the greatest sports figures in the history of Indiana include names like John Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Peyton Manning, Bob Griese, Bobby Knight, Jeff Gordon and Stewart. Watching one of the state’s greats make a final shot, throw a touchdown pass or take a final lap around the revered speedway is never easy, but tens of thousands of Hoosiers will gather Sunday at the Brickyard to say goodbye to one of their own.
“I grew up and lived my whole life in Indiana,” Stewart said. “I didn’t move to Indiana. I didn’t move away from Indiana. I’m the only NASCAR driver in the Cup Series who’s from Indiana and who still lives in Indiana, and I’m proud of where I was born. I’m proud to be back. I still live in the town I was raised in. I take a lot of pride in that. I think the state of Indiana takes a lot of pride in that, and that’s why it makes it a big weekend.”
But spare him the emotional goodbyes.
Stewart, who’ll drive the No. 14 Mobil 1/Chevy Summer Sell Down Chevrolet this weekend, insists, “I’m not going away. I’ll be around. I just won’t be driving in NASCAR. Heck, around Indiana, the fans will probably have more chances to watch us race on dirt than they would if I stayed racing in NASCAR. I’ve got a lot of racing left in me. I look at it like 2017 will begin the second half of my driving career.”
Stewart understands the historic significance of Sunday’s race and the role he’s played at the world’s most famous racetrack. The former USAC and IndyCar Series champion grew up about 45 minutes from the historic track and once drove a tow truck while trying to make ends meet as an aspiring USAC driver. Stewart would drive down Georgetown Road toward 16th Street, running parallel with the speedway’s 3,330-foot-long frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running at 200 mph.
“I’m not going to downplay it because it’s one of the most important weekends of the year for me, being at home and racing in front of friends and family for the last time there. It’ll be an emotional weekend, for sure, but I’ve got a plan on how I’m going to approach the weekend, and I’m just going to stick to that plan and go about our work.”
Like one of the sports stars he admires, Peyton Manning, Stewart wants to walk out of his final season with his head held high carrying a trophy. He arrives at Indianapolis after finishing second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon last weekend. The performance is the latest in several consecutive weeks of running at the front of the field. Stewart has the second-most points of any driver in the last five races and the eighth-most in the last 10.
Because he missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident, Stewart’s first race in 2016 didn’t occur until April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver that made him eligible for the 2016 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. After the Sonoma victory, Stewart now must race his way in by ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points. Heading into this weekend, Stewart is 28th and leads 31st-place Brian Scott by 67 points.
History says Stewart will be a favorite this weekend. He has one pole, two wins, three top-three finishes, seven top-fives, 11 top-10s and has led a total of 227 laps in 17 career Sprint Cup starts at Indianapolis. He only has four finishes outside the top-12 – a 17th-place result in 2001, a 23rd-place finish in 2008, a 17th-place run in 2014 and a 28th-place finish last year. His average Sprint Cup start at Indianapolis is 14.6, his average Sprint Cup finish at Indianapolis is 9.6. His lap-completion rate is 100 percent. His open-wheel career at Indy is impressive, as well. In five Indy 500s, he earned three top-fives and only finished outside the top-seven once. He led four of the five races for 122 of 1,000 laps.