Tony Stewart was talking a month or so ago about how he wanted tracks and fans to mark his last season as a Sprint Cup driver.
The message was basically what you’d expect from the sport’s most irascible presence: Let’s not make a big deal out of this, OK?
He most definitely didn’t want the literal dog and pony show that accompanied Jeff Gordon on his farewell tour last season (Texas Motor Speedway presented Gordon with two Shetland ponies).
“The giving ponies away at the track is the tough part, the part we’re going to try to control a little better this year,” Stewart said at the time.
“Our staff has talked to Jeff’s staff about what he had experienced last year and that’s going to give us a really good idea what to expect this year. We’re already making plans to figure out how we’re going to do the things we want to do and not do the things that we don’t want to do. We’re still going to do it our way. We’ve earned the right to do it our way, not to do it the way everyone else wants us to do it.
“I want to go drive the race car each weekend. The stuff they did for Jeff I thought was great last year. I was proud to see what the fans did, proud to see what the tracks did but I don’t think I’m deserving of that same treatment and that’s just not me. I don’t want them to go through that kind of effort.”
This might have presented a something of a problem for Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Stewart would have been starting for the 29th and final time during the Feb. 28 Folds of Honor/QuikTrip 500.
What do you give the man who has compiled 48 victories in 17 years – three of them at Atlanta – and three series championships but wants to basically be left alone?
Turns out there will be no need for any really hard gift-giving decisions. Not since Stewart injured his back in a recent ATV accident, removing him from driving for a still undetermined length of time. It has been widely rumored that Ty Dillon will drive Stewart’s car in Atlanta.
AMS is planning to paint a thank you message to the absent Stewart on the infield grass and let that stand for a low-key farewell. Probably just what Stewart would have wanted.
Stewart will not have a chance to win the one big title that has eluded him – Sunday’s Daytona 500. Not that his chances were great under any circumstances – he last won a race in 2013.
The pre-race story at Daytona is all about youth, and Chase Elliott’s place on the pole.
Once more, Stewart has shown himself to be the only man who is safer in a Sprint Cup car than just about anywhere else. The greatest damage done himself and the end of his career has occurred away from the big speedways: The ATV mishap, a sprint car accident in Iowa in 2013 in which he suffered a broken leg, a tragedy at a New York dirt track in 2014 in which he struck and killed a fellow driver.
So, Atlanta will bid a very quiet good-bye to Stewart the driver (he still will be a very active team owner) this month. Just as well, because he is not the sentimental type. And here’s hoping he can survive what just may be his most dangerous assignment yet – retirement.