Stewart takes final ride of career
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.
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.