Tony Stewart is going to do his best to avoid a Jeff Gordon-like retirement tour in 2016.
He doesn’t need or want grand displays with ponies or rocking chairs for his final NASCAR farewell.
For Stewart, 44, who has poured his passion into motorsports — including stock cars over the last two decades — skipping the fanfare and what he describes as “the circus part” of his last season behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevy would be perfectly fine with him.
The biggest thing about this year is having fun. We’re going to enjoy this last year.
“We’re already making plans to do the things we want to do and not do the things we don’t want to do,” Stewart said. “We’re going to do it our way. We’ve earned the right to do it our way.
Smoke just wants to race
“I want to go and drive the race car each weekend. The stuff they did for Jeff, I thought that was great last year. I was proud to see what the fans did. I was proud to see what the tracks did. But A, I don’t think I’m deserving of that same treatment and B, that’s just not me. I don't want them to go through that kind of effort.”
Whether it’s his contribution as a driver, team owner or track promoter, the gratitude of the race fans is enough to satisfy the driver affectionately known as “Smoke." Certainly, he’s felt that “connection” over the last 17 seasons as he’s earned three championships — including a remarkable comeback in 2011 — 48 victories, 15 poles, 182 top fives and 300 top-10 finishes in 590 starts.
For the fans
Following two winless seasons, it would have been easy for Stewart to leave the sport quietly. But he came back for one last round for his fans.
“The reason we’re doing this last year is so the fans that want to come see us race can come see us race again,” Stewart explained. “The ones that haven’t seen us race live, can come and watch us. That’s what it’s all about. That’s where our connection with our fans has been the deepest.
“The biggest thing about this year is having fun. We’re going to enjoy this last year.”
The last couple of years I’ve had a harder time adapting to how the cars have changed ... They’re a long way from getting the cars the way I would like them ultimately.
Tony Stewart on recent struggles
If Stewart has one hope, it’s to be competitive in his final season. After breaking his leg in a 2013 sprint car accident, the driver has struggled to regain his momentum.
His progress was hampered further when Stewart was involved in the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy the following year.
Crew chief Mike Bugarewicz will call the shots for Stewart in 2016. He replaces Chad Johnston, who remains close to his former driver.
Bugarewicz worked under Rodney Childers last season as the team engineer on the No. 4 squad with Kevin Harvick.
Although NASCAR is reducing the some downforce off the Sprint Cup cars, for Stewart and many other drivers that came through the open wheel ranks, it’s still not enough to make a discernible difference when it comes to offering the feel he’s looking for in a car.
Stewart acknowledged, “The last couple of years I’ve had a harder time adapting to how the cars have changed more than anything. The good news is it’s starting to go back to the way the drivers want it to ... They’re a long way from getting the cars the way I would like them ultimately.”
Still looking for first Daytona 500 win
In a perfect world, Stewart would win the Daytona 500 and lock the No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevy in the Chase for the Sprint Cup to start the season. Although he has four July wins at Daytona International Speedway, he’s still missing the Great American Race. Stewart’s bucket list also includes Darlington Raceway — due to prestige of the Southern 500 — and Kentucky Speedway, the only two tracks he has yet to win a Sprint Cup race.
But winning early in the season would certainly alleviate the pressure of making the playoffs.
“That would be the perfect year right there,” Stewart said. “I could stop after Daytona if we won it, lap out like a deal at Vegas and not look back. That would make the year fun. If I could run better than last year — last year was miserable running mid-pack like I was. That’s not what we’re used to doing. If we can gain on that and have fun this year, that’s the realistic goal.
“When you win the first race of the season, you can swing for the fences each week. If your goal is to make the Chase, you still have to race smart each week. You have to do the same things week in and week out that you’d do to win races any other week. I don’t know if you can do anything different from that.”