HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — 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 Homestead-Miami 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.
Stewart was feted with tributes all weekend by fellow drivers, fans, colleagues and every person who felt connected to him in even the smallest ways. He shed the gruff, prickly mood and became an almost happy-go-lucky guy. Stewart, clean-shaven, was all smiles as he posed for photo after photo, and hugged or wrapped his arm around crew members, and even the troops.
Homestead saluted Stewart with a coordinated “Thank you, Tony!” yell from the grandstands as the photo ops stayed on schedule.
“My last photo with the boys,” a Chevy employee shrieked.
Gordon stopped by for a quick chat with Stewart. A year ago, Gordon was mobbed by so many fans that he struggled to get to his car before the finale.
IndyCar driver Marco Andretti lingered near Stewart’s car, and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves called Smoke one of racing’s greatest drivers. Joe Gibbs, Stewart’s former car owner, hugged Stewart on pit road after the race.
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.
His Chevrolet — with dates of each of his 49 career wins etched into the paint scheme on the bumper — took a lap down pit road, and Stewart slapped hands with crew members for all NASCAR teams.
“It made me think back to the moment when Dale Senior won the Daytona 500,” Stewart said.
NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton thanked Stewart for “the character and passion you brought to NASCAR all throughout your career.”
Stewart’s career was given the highlight reel treatment in the pre-race drivers meeting with a colorful video of his biggest wins, playful banter and snippy one-liners. NASCAR drivers and crew members gave Stewart a rousing standing ovation. Stewart eventually stood and smiled, waiving in acknowledgment at the outpouring of affection.
Stewart is just retiring from NASCAR driving. He has an ownership stake in Stewart-Haas Racing and will continue to race all over the country next year at the grassroots level. He may not be done yet poking NASCAR’s leaders.
“You understand, we still invite owners to the haulers sometimes, too,” Helton quipped.
Stewart’s helmet was a weathered throwback that looked as if it had been hanging in a barn on his Indiana farm for decades. It appeared rusted, said “Smoke. Unlimited Speed,” and was a gritty symbol of one of the last true racers. The hood of Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet is emblazoned with photos from his championship years next to the slogan “Always a Racer, Forever a Champion.”
Stewart has yet to have his final ride.
He’ll go off-road riding Monday during his annual ATV trip.
But when is his next official race?
“Stay tuned,” he said, smiling. “It won’t be long.”