Tony Stewart: 'Right time' to retire after 2016 season

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NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart (14) announces his retirement at the end of the 2016 season during a press conference at Stewart Haas Racing.

NASCAR WILL BE losing another star driver after next season.

Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, 44, confirmed yesterday he'll retire after the 2016 season. As expected, Clint Bowyer will take Stewart's place in the No. 14 Chevrolet in 2017.

Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup series titlist, is completing his final season this year. Gordon, also 44, will make his final racing appearance Sunday at Dover International Speedway, weather permitting, in light of the approach of Hurrican Joaquin.

"It's the right time" to retire, Stewart said during a lengthy news conference at Stewart-Haas Racing headquarters in Kannapolis, N.C. "I love the series, I love NASCAR. I'm just changing directions. I'll be able to do a lot of things I haven't been able to do."

Stewart emphasized he is retiring only as a Cup Series driver. He'll likely resume racing sprint cars. He also said he wants to race in a Camping World Truck Series event at Ohio's Eldora Speedway, which he owns. Stewart ruled out taking one more crack at winning the Indianapolis 500, because he would need a month to prepare.

Asked how much his decision was affected by the broken leg he suffered in a sprint-car race in Iowa two years ago and the accident last year that killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a sprint car race, Stewart replied, "Zero percent. My leg feels fine. The tragedy, nothing is going to change that. It happened, but it's not going to direct the rest of my life."

Ward's family has filed a wrongful death suit against Stewart, who was not charged by authorities.

"Smoke" Stewart is regarded as one of the most versatile racers ever. If it has wheels, Stewart can drive it. His 48 Cup wins are third among active drivers. He is one of nine drivers to win three Cup championships. Stewart also won the IndyCar series title in 1997.

However, he is winless in his last 69 Cup races. His last victory was at Dover two years ago. He has only two top-10 finishes this year.

Stewart said his goals for next year include winning the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 for the first time.

"I still think we can get things turned around (next year)," he said. "We want to win as many races as we can."

Stewart said he thought about retiring at the end of this year, but he's observed the tributes to Jeff Gordon and wanted to give his fans a similar opportunity.

"The reason we decided to go ahead and run through the end of next year is 100 percent because of the fans that have supported us through the years," Stewart said. "I've been able to follow what Jeff has done this year and see how much it's meant to the fans to watch him race, knowing it's their last year to watch him. That's important to me to be able to do this for our fans that have stuck with us through thick and thin."

Stewart seems at peace with his plan.

"It's 100 percent my decision," he said. "There wasn't any pressure from anybody. If anything it was the opposite. I had more people trying to talk me out of it. It's kind of a bittersweet day. I'm excited about it, but at the same time I'm sad, as well. Everything in racing is timing. This is an opportunity to get Clint Bowyer.

"There's been more challenges in the last couple years that have distracted from (having fun) a little bit, but it's still fun. If it wasn't fun, I would just walk away. I made my father a promise when we first started racing when I was 8 years old. He made me promise him that the day that I didn't have fun doing it that I wouldn't do it anymore, and I've never forgot that.

"As you get older your priorities change. I've learned a lot about myself. There's a lot of personalities in my head that I've had to talk to lately; it's like a chat room."

Three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip is among those who appreciate Stewart.

"There is absolutely no question Stewart is one of the top-five stock-car racing drivers of all time and one of the most versatile NASCAR has ever seen," Waltrip said. "That versatility sets him apart from most anyone who has ever graced the cockpit of a stock car. Stewart is the epitome of a pure driver who only cares about racing. He doesn't do it for the fame or the money, but rather for the thrill and love of the competition.

"In addition, he is a great businessman who had the foresight and savvy to team up with Gene Haas, going on to win a championship both as a driver/owner and then as an owner with Kevin Harvick."

With Michael Waltrip Racing folding after this season, Bowyer was available. Bowyer, 16th and last in Chase points after two races, is expected to drive for HScott Motorsports next year, then succeed Stewart.

"What an unbelievable opportunity, just to think how my year started," Bowyer said. "You thought you were set, then, all of a sudden, you're not, then that led to a door opening in one of the biggest powerhouses in the sport.

"Somehow you landed in a way better situation. You (know the expression) when you fall in a pile of cow manure and come out smelling like roses? That's exactly what this is for me."

This week's race

AAA 400

Dover International Speedway, Dover, Del.

When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: NBCSN/WNPV (1440-AM)

Course: 1-mile oval

Distance: 400 laps

Forecast: rain and wind, mid-60s; Hurricane Joaquin could postpone the race to Monday or beyond. Dover officials said they are monitoring the situation.

Last year’s winner: Jeff Gordon

Last year’s pole: Kevin Harvick, 162.933 mph

Track qualifying record: Brad Keselowski, 164.444 mph (June 2014)

Track facts: Dover is the third race in the Chase Challenger Round. After Dover, the bottom four drivers in points will be ruled out of contention for the championship ... Weather permitting, the lineup starts with a scheduled K&N Series race tomorrow at 5 p.m. The Xfinity Series race is 3:30 p.m. Saturday ... Jeff Gordon won his fifth race at Dover last fall by leading 94 laps, including the last 71. Brad Keselowski was runner-up. Kevin Harvick led the most laps, 223, but finished 13th after dealing with a flat tire on his Chevrolet ... Jimmie Johnson’s victory at Dover in May was his record 10th at the track. He is the only active driver with 10 or more wins at a track. Harvick finished second. Johnson is making his 500th Cup series start Sunday. He has won three of the last four Dover races ... Harvick, 23 points behind the cutoff line for advancing to the Chase Contenders Round, basically needs to win Sunday’s race. He is winless in 29 Dover starts.

Wins: Matt Kenseth, 5; Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, 4 each, Joey Logano, 3; Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, 2 each; Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr., 1 each.

STANDINGS

1. Matt Kenseth ... 2,099

2. Denny Hamlin ... 2,093

3. Carl Edwards ... 2,089

4. Joey Logano ... 2,089

5. Jimmie Johnson ... 2,083

6. Ryan Newman ... 2,074

7. Kurt Busch ... 2,073

8. Brad Keselowski ... 2,072

9. Martin Truex Jr. ... 2,071

10. Jeff Gordon ... 2,068

11. Jamie McMurray ... 2,058

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ... 2,057

13. Kyle Busch ... 2,056

14. Paul Menard ... 2,056

15. Kevin Harvick ... 2,034

16. Clint Bowyer ... 2,018

Up next: Bank of America 500, Oct. 10, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C., 7 p.m.; TV: NBC10; last year’s winner, Kevin Harvick.


Email: fleiscb@phillynews.com