No. 14 Mobil 1/Rev The Vote Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart isn’t going to win his fourth Sprint Cup championship in 2016, but the future NASCAR Hall of Famer is quick to say he’s not going to let that diminish what he sees as a successful 18th and final season in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing.
“Sure, I’m disappointed as any competitor would be,” said Stewart, whose 13th-place finish Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway left him 13th in points after the Round of 16 in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Only 12 of the 16 Chase drivers advanced to the Round of 12 that begins with Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
“I’m not going to let falling out of the Chase ruin what I think has been a really good year,” Stewart said. “There are still a lot of races left and we are going to go out and try to win a few more. We’ve had a lot of fun this season and that’s not going to stop because we are out of the Chase.
“We gave it our best at Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover. We made our car much better throughout the weekend in Dover and I was pretty proud we could walk out of there with a 13th-place finish. It just wasn’t good enough this year to advance.”
Stewart announced a year ago that 2016 would be his final season in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. But he’s been more than competitive during his swan song. He’s logged five top-five finishes and seven top-10s in 21 races in 2016. He also returned to victory lane in June when he won on the road course at Sonoma (Calif.) International Raceway.
Stewart has several goals for the final seven races of his career. His next victory will be the 50th in his career and tie him for 11th place all-time with NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. There would be no better place to reach that milestone than Charlotte, where he’ll make his 35th career start. Stewart won the fall race in 2003 and has posted six top-fives and 13 top-10s, plus he led a total of 701 laps in his 34 career Sprint Cup starts there. His average Charlotte start is 16.4, his average finish is 14.8, and he has a lap-completion rate of 96.5 percent.
“Charlotte certainly has special memories for me,” Stewart said. “Making one more memory would be really cool.”
One those special memories includes his inaugural victory for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in 2009 at the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. It launched SHR on a path to 35 wins in 800 races, plus championships for Stewart in 2011 and Kevin Harvick in 2014.
SHR headquarters in Kannapolis is about 10 miles from the Charlotte track. Shop employees who normally don’t travel the 36-race NASCAR schedule usually attend Charlotte to watch their team race. They’ll see Stewart will introduce a new corporate partner on the deck lid of the No. 14 at Charlotte in Rev The Vote – a non-partisan organization whose mission is to increase voter registration among the millions of unregistered motorsports fans in the United States.
While Stewart might not be a title contender in 2016, there’s still more items on his to-do list in the final seven races of his storied career and it begins this weekend in Charlotte.
Have you thought about what you will do once you retire?
“Well this year’s my 18th year and I turned 45 this year and you know I still have unfinished business in dirt-track racing that I want to do and, yeah, winning three championships in the Cup side and I never won the Daytona 500, but I won the Brickyard 400 twice. So I’ve had a really good run and there are a lot of things in the sport that are changing. But something that’s important to me is I don’t want to lose track of where I came from and I’m ready to go back to dirt racing. I’m really craving it. I think the stress of trying to be an owner and driver at SHR, I mean, it’s hard to have that much weight on your shoulders and try to compete at that high of a level as a driver and at the same time be an owner. So I’m stepping away from the driver side and I’ll be able to do a better job of focusing on the four drivers we’ll have next year. That’ll make my life a lot easier. And then, at the same time, it gives me the opportunity to play two roles. I get to be the boss of SHR, but in the evening I get to go race and have fun myself and get my fix that way. So I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be – I can already tell it’s going to be – a lot of fun. I mean, Jeff Gordon and I are great friends, and he’s in his first year of retirement so he’s already told me what to look forward to for the next year. So I’m excited about that.”
Are you putting the focus on racing or retirement in the last 10 weeks?
“All I wanted to do is race hard this year. These last few weeks, I am not worried about all the fluff and buff that goes on each week. I just want to go out do the best we can with this team and get the best result. We are going to work hard these next seven races and not worry about anything else.”
What does it take to be successful at Charlotte?
“It always seems like it’s a battle of trying to get your car to cut through the center of the corner and keep the forward drive in it. It seems like it’s a sacrifice of one or the other, but the two ends of the track are different. It seems like you can carry a lot more speed through (turns) one and two, and (turns) three and four are a little more thread-the-needle-type corners. Sometimes there isn’t a big difference between the fall and spring races at Charlotte. They’re spread out so far and they’re at the beginning of summer and the end of summer, so a lot of times they can be very similar.”
What stood out the most about your win in the All-Star Race, which was SHR’s first victory?
“Probably the best part was the fact it was the first chance Gene (Haas) had gotten to come and watch the team run. For him to come to the track and the first night out go to victory lane, that was a pretty cool welcome back party for him. That made it a huge night for the organization to be able to have everybody there and not feel like somebody got left out. Everybody was there and present for it. Guys who don’t get a chance to come to the track get to come to the track that weekend. So, it was cool to get guys in victory lane for the first time.”