Sunday’s NASCAR race at Homestead marks the end of an era. Jimmie Johnson will win his third straight championship – that’s the big story. But perhaps as equally significant, Tony Stewart will crank the engine of No. 20 The Home Depot car for Joe Gibbs Racing for the last time.
Love him or hate him, and there are plenty of you out there that can’t stand him, Stewart’s driving talent is undeniable. He is unquestionable one of the 10 greatest drivers in NASCAR history. When you look at the total body of work, Stewart is in the discussion of the greatest driver ever to hail from the United States. Few, if any can boast such an impressive racing resume. World Karting Association champion in 1987. Three USAC championships in 1995 – the first driver and one of only two to ever win the Triple Crown Championship. Inaugural Indy Racing League champion in 1997, and of course two NASCAR Sprint Cup championships – one under each format – the only driver to accomplish the feat.
Stewart ends a 10-year run that saw him win 33 races and the two championships. Along the way, he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli picked up two Brickyard 400 wins and Stewart is the only driver to start on the front row of the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 in his rookie years, staring second and first respectively.
There has been plenty of controversy along the way. Stewart tangled with fellow rookie, the late Kenny Irwin, during a race at Martinsville. After he exited his wrecked machine, he shoved his arm through the passenger side window as Irwin drove by and threw his gloves when he stormed by.
There are the many dust-ups with fellow multiple cup champion Jeff Gordon. The two have wrecked each other at Bristol, Watkins Glen and Dover.
Nobody will forget the incident in 2002 when he punched a reporter at Indianapolis. The list is legendary. But that’s what made the man they call Smoke so good.
People love to throw the guy under the bus. Up until 2005, he was an easy target. But Stewart moved away from Charlotte to get back to his roots in Indiana that year and the move resulted into a second championship and his best year of his career to date.
Zippy has been the constant all along. Whenever Stewart went awry, he could always rely on Zippy’s resolve to pull him through. The Gibbs’ have been supportive as well. Nobody knows how to deal with a professional ego better than "The Coach", Joe Gibbs. His son JD runs the company now, but whenever Stewart needed a swift kick in the rear to get him back in line, Joe Gibbs was the master.
This year, he’s struggled. After he made the announcement he would be leaving JGR to start his own team, many felt like his competitive days were behind him. Only time will tell. The thing about Stewart is he’s one of those people who succeeds at everything he does. That gives his fans hope that he will once again be the most dominate driver on the circuit. That title went from Gordon to Stewart and now resides with Johnson. But Dale Earnhardt proved what a great drive could do late in his career when he won back-to-back championships at age 43 and 44. Stewart’s only 37 so he has time.
More important for the modern day A.J. Foyt, Stewart wants to build a successful race team. All he has left to accomplish is winning the Daytona 500. Mark Martin almost pulled it off in 2007 with then Ginn Motorsports and that performance gives fans hope.
If you watch the race, take a moment to respect what Stewart and Zippy have done. Zipadelli will go on the coach-up a new driver – Joey Logano. He really wanted to go with Stewart and struggled with the decision, but loyalty to the Gibbs ultimately won out. He’ll still be around. The NASCAR garage isa family in itself and the two will still lean on each other for advice.
Stewart and Zipadelli have new challenges ahead, but will inextricably be linked in NASCAR history as one of the most successful driver/crew chief duos ever. Take a moment to watch the No. 20 car with Smoke above the door one last time. All good things come to an end. And even though Stewart is 12th in points and hasn’t run well enough to win a race in weeks, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if big orange ends up in victory lane one last time.