Most people probably think the next chapter in Tony Stewart’s life begins on Sunday night, after he races his final laps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
But from Stewart’s perspective, the next phase of his life starts on Saturday, a day before Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at 2:30 pm on NBC, his final race in NASCAR’s premier division.
Saturday is when he gets a new cell phone to replace the one stolen on Thursday night.
Someone presumed to be a pickpocket bumped into Stewart when he and his girlfriend stopped at a carnival on the way from Miami Beach to Homestead and pilfered the cell phone from the driver’s pocket.
“We had bumped into some people … and I’m fairly certain that is when it decided it went a different direction,” Stewart said on Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in likely his last question-and-answer session with reporters as a Sprint Cup driver. “But it was kind of fun, because they have that Find My iPhone app.
“We went chasing people forever trying to find it, until we realized they were in the parking lot, and they got in the car and they were gone. I hit ‘block’ on it and deleted it and now I’ve got to get a new phone, which is devastating because I do everything off of my cell phone. My life is on that cell phone, so I start my life over tomorrow.”
It’s on Sunday night, however, when Stewart’s life will change irrevocably. But the driver nicknamed “Smoke” simply calls it “halftime.”
“The great thing is I’m not really going anywhere,” said Stewart, who co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas. “It’s not really a huge change, because 90 percent of the stuff that I’m already doing I’m still going to continue to do. It’s a big part, obviously, in the racing world. It’s a big change (exiting the No. 14 car), but for me it’s not going to be that big of a change.
“I just look at it like it’s halftime of the ball game, in all honesty. This is the end of the first half, and next season we start the second half, and it’s going to be just as much fun if not more fun than this first half was. I’m excited about finishing this chapter, but I’m really excited about starting the next chapter next year.”
Unlike Jeff Gordon, who was feted at every track on his farewell tour last year, Stewart asked promoters to downplay his departure. Most complied—other than Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, who presented Stewart with a gigantic bobblehead at driver introductions.
When Jeff Gordon raced for the last time as a full-time driver at Homestead in 2015, motorsports luminaries Lewis Hamilton and Mario Andretti were there to pay their respects. Country superstar Tim McGraw was among the well-wishers.
Stewart has no such entourage this week.
Asked whether he had any special guests coming to Homestead on Sunday, Stewart listed three names: “Eddie and Drew and Mike.” For the record, those are business manager Eddie Jarvis, PR representative Drew Brown and PR director Mike Arning, three men who are part of the Stewart orbit every week.
“Eddie, Drew and Mike they are pretty special,” Stewart said. “I mean Eddie … that man has been through every battle and war with me. He has probably been the biggest father figure I’ve ever had in my life. I think that’s pretty special just to have him here, let alone Mike, who has been through 17 years with me.
“Gooch, my bus driver who has been with me for almost 20 years now—those are the people that I’m excited to share this weekend with. It’s not one-off friends that come here and there and are hanging out for the weekend. It’s the people that everyday week-in and week-out have been through this journey with me.”
Where Gordon has expanded his scope beyond racing, Stewart can’t imagine doing anything else. Gordon has his own wine label, has made a charity trip to Africa as part of the Clinton Global Initiative and has transitioned to a career in the FOX Sports broadcast booth.
Stewart owns a race track (Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio), does substantial charity work behind the scenes and drives sprint cars in his spare time.
“The crazy thing is I wouldn’t even know what to do (outside racing),” Stewart said. “You guys know all the entities that I have, and all of it revolves around racing. It’s like I never … since I was eight years old there has never been a thought in my mind about doing things outside of racing.
“I don’t know what to do outside of racing. It’s been 24/7 my mind is consumed with some capacity (of racing).”
Stewart, however, says he’s learned one valuable lesson this year from Gordon, who “unretired” this season to substitute in eight races for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is recovering from a concussion.
“This is it. This is the last one,” Stewart said of Sunday’s race. “I think I learned my lesson from Jeff. Jeff tried to do somebody a favor this year and got roped into running half the season. Thank you, Jeff, for teaching me a lesson before I got roped into it.
“So, no, I’m not planning on that at all. We’re going to be busy. In all honesty—and I don’t have a schedule set next year, but I just know the things that I’m planning—my schedule next year is going to be much busier than it already is this year. There is just not going to be room for it.”
If the three-time series champion is finished as a Sprint Cup driver, he will still play a prominent role as a team owner, after Clint Bowyer takes over the seat of the No. 14, which will be a Ford next year.
And the sport will be better off because Stewart is still involved.