Ste­wart takes fi­nal ride of ca­reer

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Dan Gelston AP Sports Writer

HOMESTEAD, fLA. >> Tony Ste­wart slid out of his car in a NASCAR race for the fi­nal time and was swarmed by cam­eras, friends and ri­vals who wanted a piece of the re­tired cham­pion.

Jeff Gor­don, another re­tired great, walked over to make the loos­est of plans for their free time.

“We’re gonna have fun,” Gor­don said.

“Damn right we are,” Ste­wart replied.

Ste­wart’s fi­nal NASCAR race was pure fun — and even a bit emo­tional for the no­to­ri­ously gruff driver known as “Smoke.” But for all the ac­co­lades heaped and R-rated tales spun this week, Ste­wart made it clear he was sim­ply a race car driver at heart to the end.

“I didn’t think of any­thing else other than just rac­ing the race,” Ste­wart said.

Ste­wart fin­ished 22nd on Sunday at Homestead­Mi­ami Speed­way, the fin­ish a mere foot­note that capped a two-decade ca­reer stuffed with con­tro­versy and cham­pi­onships. He walked off with fi­nal me­mento: Jim­mie John­son gave his race hel­met to Ste­wart mo­ments af­ter he won his sev­enth NASCAR cham­pi­onship.

The ges­ture was the ul­ti­mate sign of re­spect to­ward a guy known as the ul­ti­mate pure driver.

“This is prob­a­bly the big­gest honor you can have as a driver, to get a guy that just won his sev­enth cham­pi­onship, to get his hel­met like that,” Ste­wart said.

Ear­lier, Ste­wart sounded at peace head­ing into his fi­nal NASCAR race.

“Guys, it’s been a hell of a ride for 18 years,” he said over the ra­dio. “Let’s go out here and have one more good day.”

He’s had plenty of great ones through the years.

Ste­wart had steeled his emo­tions in the lead-up to his fi­nal start and kept dis­trac­tions at bay and close friends nearby be­fore the race.

His No. 14 Chevro­let was bar­ri­caded and pro­tected by armed po­lice of­fi­cers be­fore the sea­son fi­nale. His race car was es­sen­tially sit­ting in Turn 4, well away from the rest of the field. A ban­ner flew nearby to tell fans where they could get a glimpse of the three-time Cup se­ries cham­pion.

“It’s time. Let’s go. I’m ready,” Ste­wart said.

NASCAR added a cer­e­mo­nial pace lap with Ste­wart lead­ing the field be­fore the race. There was a Ford truck that flew a “Thank you, Smoke. 14” ban­ner in front of him.

TERRY RENNA - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Tony Ste­wart, right, smiles as he talks to Jim­mie John­son af­ter the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race Sunday, in Homestead, Fla. John­son won the race and the sea­son ti­tle.

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