For weeks he didn’t want to leave his house. Merely rising out of bed was a challenge. He didn’t want to see friends, family or any familiar faces. Mostly, he just wanted to be left alone — alone to deal with his despair, his nightmares, his ghosts.
The racecar driver felt a darkness closing in last summer. In silence he pondered if he’d ever have the will — or desire — to slide behind the wheel again, let alone venture outside the doors of his home in Charlotte. Hundreds of friends, filled with worry, called and texted and called again; no one heard back.
They all wondered: Will Tony Stewart ever race again? Will he ever be the same again? Will he ever leave that damn house again?
At age 43, Tony Stewart is already a motor sports legend. He’s a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and a one-man racing empire. As the majority owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart oversees some 250 employees. He’s assembled a virtual driver dream team, featuring himself, Danica Patrick (the most marketable driver in the United States), Kurt Busch (a past champion) and Kevin Harvick (the reigning Sprint Cup champion). He also owns a dirt track (Eldora Speedway in Ohio), a World of Outlaws team, a USAC team and his own PR firm. The guy who lives in $10 T-shirts and old blue jeans — Stewart’s workingman demeanor has made him a folk hero to blue-collar NASCAR fans from coast to coast — has a net worth reported to be $70 million. He is this generation’s Dale Earnhardt Sr. — a master businessman off the track, and an intimidating, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way force on the track.
But late last summer, Stewart was ready to turn in his keys and walk away from racing. The lowest moment of his life, as he would later describe it, occurred on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. That evening, at the dirt track, the winged Sprint Car driven by Stewart struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward, who under the yellow flag had exited his car and walked into the racing groove to yell at Stewart. After a two-month investigation, the district attorney in Ontario County elected not to file criminal charges against Stewart.
But the questions linger: Did Stewart drive aggressively toward Ward that night on the dirt track? Could he even see Ward, who was on a dimly lit track in a black driver’s suit? Ward had tangled with Stewart early in the 14th lap of the 25-lap race on the oval dirt track. When Ward tried to pass Stewart, the veteran squeezed him into the wall. Ward’s right rear tire blew. Irate, he unbuckled his belts and stormed onto the track, snorting fire and looking for Stewart. What happened next, in the dark of that sad summer night, is a matter of interpretation.
Stewart has steadfastly maintained that he did nothing wrong, that his conscience is clear. “I know what happened, and I know it was an accident,” he said a few weeks after Ward’s death. What’s indisputable is that he has been deeply affected by the tragedy, that it has shaken him to the core. “I don’t know that it will ever be normal again.”
“The first three days (after the accident) that I was home I really didn’t do anything,” Stewart continued. “I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t care if I took a shower. … The first three or four days I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Didn’t want to see anybody — I just wanted to be by myself. You finally get up and you finally start moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier, but it was a big, drastic change from what I was used to, for sure, not having the desire to do anything. All you thought about is what happened and asking yourself why. Why did this happen?”
So what’s next for Tony Stewart? Will he ever be the same racer? Not even he knows.
Smoke, as Stewart is called in the garage, is the most successful driver-owner in 21st-century NASCAR. In his 16 years on the Cup circuit he’s taken 48 checkered flags, had 182 top-5 finishes in his 554 starts, and earned more than $117 million in winnings alone. He captured his first title as an owner last November when Kevin Harvick out-dueled Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stewart, still grieving, played a vital role in Harvick’s surge last fall. He was in Harvick’s ear during the Chase, talking to his driver about everything from setups to preferred lines around the track to the importance of getting away from racing for a few days before Homestead. And when intensity was redlining for the other contenders in the days before the final race of 2014, Stewart was the voice of calm reassurance — a voice of experience. Then, once the green flag dropped at Homestead, you’d have thought it was Stewart driving Harvick’s Chevy, the way Harvick aggressively pushed cars aside and outwitted other drivers on re-starts to win the race and the title.
“Tony was a big part of just kind of giving me the heads up and saying, ‘All right, Bud, this is not going to be like last week. You might be able to go and be prepared to run for a race win, but now you’re going to race for a championship, and it’s all on the line in one spot,’” Harvick says. “And he was a big help to helping (my wife) DeLana and I just kind of get through the week and keeping it low key, and he was right.”
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Stewart sat out three Cup races after Ward’s death. Yet even before that harrowing night in upstate New York, Stewart had only two top-5 finishes in 21 starts in 2014 and was 19th in points — the lowest he’d been in the standings at that point in the season in his Cup career. He often appeared tentative behind the wheel and hesitant to stick the nose of his No. 14 Chevy in precarious positions. In other words, he didn’t look like the hard-charging Tony Stewart — the huffing, puffing Stewart who would blow a rival’s race hopes down with a few daring and deft maneuvers — of seasons past.
Many in the garage pointed to the fact that Stewart had been in a scary crash in a winged Sprint Car in August 2013 — an accident on the dirt of Southern Iowa Speedway in which he broke his right tibia and fibula, forcing him to miss the final 15 races of the season. Stewart had vowed to come back as strong and aggressive as ever, but nothing will siphon a driver’s willingness to go full-throttle into a turn at 190 mph three-wide quite like a violent wreck.
So Stewart was already dealing with aftereffects of a dirt track crash when Ward stepped into the racing groove at Canandaigua Motorsports Park last August. When Stewart returned to NASCAR on Aug. 31 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, fans and fellow drivers greeted him warmly, but Stewart himself clearly wasn’t the same. In the world of motorsports, a distracted driver is typically a slow driver, and Stewart certainly was distracted. Less than halfway through his first race back at Atlanta, he crashed to finish 41st.
Stewart never looked like the Tony of old last fall — the tempestuous guy who was so full of fire in the cockpit that a rival driver said: “There’s a fine line between being in control and being out of control, and Tony occasionally crosses it. I wouldn’t say he’s a time bomb, but he’s something close.”
After Ward’s death, Stewart had only one top-10 run in 12 starts. He finished the year with an early wreck at Homestead and last-place finish of 43rd, ending a 15-season streak with at least one win — the fourth longest in NASCAR history.
“I’ve had a terrible year,” Stewart said shortly after climbing out of his car for the final time in 2014.
“There is sort of a sickness or something in the pit of your stomach for what Tony is going through,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of Stewart’s closest friends in racing. “But at the same time, you never really forget that somebody was killed. … It will have huge effect on both sides for so many years.”
More than any other forty-something driver in NASCAR, Tony Stewart lives racing. It’s the air he breathes, the one true love in his life.
In the last decade, Stewart hasn’t dated much. He doesn’t have children. What he has is racing.
“Tony loves this sport more than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Jimmie Johnson, a longtime friend of Stewart’s. “And he’s so talented. He does things on the track that you just don’t see other drivers pull off. He’s one of a kind.”
“Tony still has as much talent as anyone in the series,” Earnhardt Jr. said last season. “It takes drive and passion to succeed in this sport, and Tony still has that.”
Indeed, there isn’t one person in the garage who believes Stewart suddenly forgot how to drive. But a few factors could diminish Stewart’s speed next season. In August, he turns 44, an age when a driver’s hand-eye-foot coordination normally begins to deteriorate. (Only one driver in Cup history, 45-year-old Bobby Allison in 1983, has won a championship after celebrating a 43rd birthday.) Combine that with the injury he sustained in 2013 and the lingering trauma he says he’s still experiencing from the incident over the summer, and it’s easy to make a case that Stewart’s best days are in his rearview mirror.
But even if Stewart isn’t a weekly threat to take the checkered flag like he was in 2011 when he blazed to his third championship, he still could be a factor in the Chase. Given that he’s still one of the top road course racers on the circuit, he should be a favorite to reach Victory Lane at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in August. Stewart also flourishes on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway (in his last five starts on the 2.5-mile tri-oval he has a win and second-place finish) as well as at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where in his last 11 starts he has six top-five runs.
And in NASCAR, never underestimate the value of having an elite pit crew and a car that will have as many resources poured into it as any in the sport. In the Sprint Cup Series, the quality of the car is far more important than the quality of the driver — most longtime garage observers say the formula for winning is now 80 percent car and 20 percent driver.
So on paper, Stewart, the reigning championship team owner in NASCAR, should have all the physical tools necessary to succeed in 2015. The bigger question, perhaps, is whether the emotional scars from last August will have healed enough for him to rebound and challenge for a fourth Cup title next fall.
“I’ll know when it’s time to step away from the sport,” Stewart said two years ago. “I’ve seen too many guys hang on for too long, just a big name cruising around in the back collecting checks. That won’t be me. I love this too much and I can always just go and put on my owner’s hat full-time.
“You need to walk away when you’re still near the top. That will be me, I promise. The stopwatch never lies in our sport. Never. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s also how I’ll know my time is up.”
Has that time come? The guess here: The stopwatch in 2015 will say no.
— Written by Lars Anderson for Athlon Sports.