Smoke Keeps Emotions in Check as Industry Comes Together in His Honor

Photo courtesy of NASCAR/Getty Images

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Pardon Tony Stewart if he didn’t shed a tear – at least in public – as he went off into retirement from driving in NASCAR’s premier series.

The former three-time champ and Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner said all along that he wanted a quiet farewell tour. And for the most part, he did get his wish.

“The reason that this isn’t a big deal to me is because I’m gonna be around,” said Stewart at the Sprint Cup Series awards at the Wynn Las Vegas. “I’m gonna see you guys like I always see you. Just a different role.

­­”If I was retiring and walking away from the sport, I would be a lot more emotional about it. But it’s literally just changing roles. I mean I’m not going anywhere.”

Stewart says he is looking forward to 2017 and already knows what a season outside of the car will be like after being sidelined to start 2016.

“I got a taste of this earlier in the year when I broke my back,” he said. “The first five races it was difficult to be at the track and the traveling was really difficult. It was painful to do that but I really got a good idea of what it’s gonna be (like) next year and I was happy with it.”

And even though he was delighted to see two surprise guests during Champions Week, Stewart pretty much kept it together.

First, his racing idol A.J. Foyt was brought onto the stage at NASCAR’s After The Lap event on Thursday night. But the visit didn’t elicit one tear drop from Stewart; just laughter.

“That was fun,” Stewart said. “That’s always a fun (After The Lap) deal and is always a good time as everyone just lets their guard down and loosens up and has fun anyway. And to have A.J. come out was really cool.

“The best part was we probably spent an hour and a half in the back after it was over and had people tore up laughing.”

The next night, Stewart’s buddy Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam blindsided him with an appearance at the Sprint Cup Series Awards Banquet. But Stewart, perhaps just good at keeping his emotions in check, held it together again.

“I’m totally blown away and caught off guard,” Stewart said. “I really don’t know what to say. Really honored that Eddie Vedder would come here for this.”

Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson was expecting a reaction similar to a year ago when Tom Cruise stunned a retiring Jeff Gordon at this same event.

“We were convinced we were going to get tears out of Stewart for once, but nothing. He composed himself pretty well,” Johnson said. “He just kept smiling bigger and bigger, and maybe that was the best.”

In this deal, it was Vedder – not Smoke — who was choking up and in shock as he received a $1.8 million donation from the NASCAR community made in Stewart’s name for Vedder’s charity that is dedicated to finding a cure for Epidermolysis Bullosa, a skin disorder affecting children. It is estimated the donation will be very close to providing medical experts with enough funding to find a cure.

The Indiana native got involved with Vedder’s project earlier this year when he met the singer at a show in South Carolina, he said.

But you wouldn’t hear about it from Stewart despite being ­­one of the most candid drivers in the garage. He gives quietly.

“We don’t do it for publicity or anything like that,” said Stewart, of his off-track contributions. “We don’t talk about it a bunch because of that. It’s not why we do all this stuff. We do it because we care about it and we care about the causes.”

So what’s next for Stewart as he bequeaths his No. 14 car to Clint Bowyer?

Watch out for him at a dirt track near you.

“I’m going to be doing a lot of racing – dirt track racing and have a good time,” said Stewart, who will continue his role as a SHR owner. “I kinda get the best of both worlds now.”

And is he at peace with an 18-year career that yielded titles in 2002, ’05 and ’11 with 49 wins?

“There is definitely races that I would have liked to have won that I didn’t win in my career,” the 45-year-old said. “I wanted to win a Daytona 500 obviously and wanted to win a Southern 500; those were the big ones that I didn’t accomplish.

“But other than that, I think when I judged it, I thought of myself as an 18-year-old kid that’s leaving high school and said if I would consider it a successful career? And judging off that, the way I would have thought when I was 18, I think I did all right.”

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