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Tony Stewart Sails Off Into Sunset At Right Time

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Sports, even for the best of athletes comes with a cruel final chapter. A corporate vice president can choose when to end their career; if they’re lucky, it’s at a ripe old age where they can retire into the sunset, gray-haired and with a grandchild under each arm on the way out the door.

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For athletes, Father Time doesn’t leave them with a choice. Diminishing skills at an early age leave the rug pulled out from under them well before they see it coming. For every John Elway, winning two Super Bowls and leaving at the top there’s ten Michael Jordans hanging on too long, clinging to the records they set while mistakenly thinking the mountain they’re sliding down can one day be climbed all over again.

I thought of those awkward realities as Tony Stewart went up on stage Wednesday, announcing his retirement from NASCAR effective the end of next season. Stewart, who will be 45 by the end of 2016, will go down as one of the best in stock car history, winning three titles, two Brickyard 400s and earning well over $120 million in career earnings. UnlikeJeff Gordon, retiring one year earlier (age 44) Smoke never had the desire to retire this early. Instead, he’s a guy out of the A.J. Foytmold you could have seen aiming to pull a random Daytona 500 attempt well into his mid-50s.

Time, however told a different story, as well as an aging body. It’s hard to believe that Stewart, who’s scored all of two top 10s this season was the series champion as recently as November 2011. He won five races that year, surged from 10th in the standings to first during the Chase and ended Jimmie Johnson’sstreak of five straight titles. Since then? He’s won only four times, not once since 2012 and gone through two major crew chief changes. An ugly sprint car accident broke his leg, left him out of the sport for half a season and still had him limping at times inside the garage area for nearly two years. Add in the tragedy of Kevin Ward Jr., the young driver killed by Stewart’s car in an incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, and it’s clear the downhill slide was filled with more vicious potholes than one could have ever predicted. (Ward’s family, filing a wrongful death civil lawsuit has brought forth litigation that could stretch on for years if no settlement is reached).

Credit Stewart, who was never even close to making the Chase this season, for realizing quickly that his on-track skills were diminishing. His choice? Retire rather than pull a Darrell Waltripand drag on for years, riding around “just because” of his famous last name and past accomplishments. He’s not a man who enjoys running 35th and already has a four-car organization, one of the best dirt racetracks in the country (Eldora) and plenty of money to fall back on.

“It was a choice that was 100 percent mine,” Stewart said, claiming his off-track distractions – and leg – had nothing to do with it. “There wasn't any pressure from anybody. If anything, it was the opposite. I had more people trying to talk me out of it than anything. You know, I think it's a scenario where everybody in their career at some point makes the decision that it's time for a change. I think deep down, you know.”

Give credit to Stewart for knowing; he’s 25th in points during a year when two of his teammates may challenge for the championship. Even next year’s set of rumored rule changes, designed to put a looser car on the track (his specialty) wasn’t enough to convince him otherwise. And once Clint Bowyerbecame available, willing to work on Stewart’s timetable (he’ll run for another lower-tier team, run by Harry Scott before taking over the No. 14 car in 2017) making the call turned into a no-brainer.

“That’s when you know you seize the opportunity,” he said. “When somebody in a scenario like Clint's this year came about, you jump on those opportunities, and you know that timing is everything.”

Stewart hopes he’ll have one last chance now to rewrite his final chapter. Just 24 laps led, no top-5 finishes and no shot at a title isn’t exactly what he had in mind for an epilogue. But even if next year is as bad as this one, Stewart kept himself from falling into the trap of hanging on too long. He’s still got a chance to leave under his own terms.

It’s an example that other famous athletes should follow. Through the Gears we go as NASCAR’s first round of the Chase winds down at Dover this weekend…

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FIRST GEAR: Harvick’s Postseason Nightmare

Reigning champion Kevin Harvickwas in the midst of a record-setting season entering this Chase. Now? He’s poised to become the most surprising title knockout since NASCAR adopted a playoff format in 2004.

For Harvick, the ending is especially cruel considering his No. 4 Chevrolet was in position to win New Hampshire. Leading 216 of 300 laps, he had a dominant car only to have crew chief Rodney Childersget caught napping during a late caution flag. Waiting too long to call his driver in to pit, the duo was stuck with a terrible choice: give up all their track position to come in a lap later than everyone else or stay out, trying to go the final 86 laps on one tank of gas. For whatever reason, whether it was a faulty fuel tank or poor mileage, Harvick ran out with three laps left, dropping down to 21st at the finish and leaving himself an insurmountable 23 points outside the Chase with one race remaining until the reset. 

It’s possible Harvick, winless during his career at the Monster Mile, can get over the hump: he was second in the spring and has led 1,676 laps, nearly twice as many as any other driver this season. But it seems like the frustration of two horrible weekends combined with the success of other drivers at Dover (Jeff Gordonand Jimmie Johnsonhave combined to win the past four races there) make moving on to the next round a bit of a longshot. The next eight weeks may be filled with “what might have been” moments for a team that’s racked up two victories this season but a whopping 10 second-place finishes. What would have happened if one of those “silver medals” were turned into gold? That would have been 15 extra bonus points for the first round of NASCAR’s Chase and the ending here might have been different. Perhaps second place is the first loser after all.

SECOND GEAR: An Awkward End for Michael Waltrip Racing

Wednesday’s news Clint Bowyer’s25-point appeal was denied put the final black eye on the knockout punch for Michael Waltrip Racing. The penalty scored at Chicagoland for messing with the track bar now leaves Bowyer a whopping 39 points behind 12th place in the standings entering Dover. Barring a miracle win, MWR will be knocked out of the Chase and now faces the natural distraction of all their major employees focused on new jobs beginning somewhere else in a few short months.

MWR’s fall from grace will always surround the infamous Spingate incident in the Fall of 2013 where Bowyer intentionally spun in a move designed to put teammateMartin Truex Jr.in position to still make the Chase. Who would have guessed that would wind up costing 200-plus jobs, three Sprint Cup teams and millions in investment from co-owners Rob Kauffman and Michael Waltrip?

THIRD GEAR: Big Names on a Big Bubble

Loudon led to major potholes in the title bids of both Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Busch, whose mid-race bout with the wall left him struggling to a 37th-place finish, now sits one point outside the Chase with one race remaining. Earnhardt is directly ahead, the victim of a faulty fuel tank like Harvick that sent him spiraling down to 25th during the final hectic laps of New Hampshire.

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In some ways, both men have overachieved during a season where neither one was expected to contend for the title. Busch spent 11 races recovering from serious leg injuries suffered in a February Daytona accident; he had to win four races and surge inside the top 30 in points to even have a chance. For Earnhardt, running the first season with new crew chief Greg Ives there were necessary chemistry and communication adjustments he needed to get through. But now that they’re here, both have high expectations and for either one to get knocked out inside the first round would be a major disappointment. Both men have struggled at times at Dover, too; Busch crashed out in 36th this spring while Earnhardt was a ho-hum 14th. A repeat of either performance will leave both men on the outside looking in.

FOURTH GEAR: Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Keep on Rolling

Meanwhile, back at the ranch Matt Kenseth earned his fifth win of the season at New Hampshire and is cruising to the next round of the Chase. His No. 20 team now appears as strong as his runner-up title performance two years ago and he’s looking like a formidable challenger to other drivers that dominated the early part of the season: four-time winner Johnson, Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Kurt Busch of Stewart-Haas Racing.

But he’s not the only one from JGR mounting a bid. Carl Edwards looks settled in at his new JGR ride and overcame a pit road penalty to surge from the back into the top 5 at New Hampshire. He, along with teammate Denny Hamlin have the veteran experience needed to manage NASCAR’s multi-round Chase format and be there when the smoke clears at Homestead. What’s frustrating for traditional fans is neither one, like Kenseth, would be close to the top of the standings if NASCAR stuck to its old “regular season” format. Under that system, Logano would have a commanding lead and none of the JGR drivers would be closer than 117 points.

OVERDRIVE

Danica Patrick had to be frustrated over mid-race contact with Ryan Newman at New Hampshire that left her car a mangled mess. Patrick, 40th in the final rundown after flashing top-10 speed hasn’t run better than 15th in any Sprint Cup race since Dover in June... Don’t count out Paul Menard to advance to the next round of the Chase. Menard, the largest underdog in the 16-driver field, was eighth at Dover this spring and a second straight top-10 finish would send his No. 27 Chevy into the final 12.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by ASP Inc.