Team: #14 (Stewart-Haas Racing)
Top 5s: 5
Top 10s: 8
Best finish: 1st (Sonoma)
Points finish: 15th
In September 2015, it was announced that the three-time series champion would retire after the 2016 season. However, Stewart’s season debut was delayed when he injured his back in a dune buggy accident in late January.
Stewart officially made his return to racing at Richmond, where he finished 19th. He slowly moved his way up the field before winning at Sonoma. Like Chris Buescher, he needed to reach the top-30 in points to qualify for the Chase; unlike Buescher, he had the benefit of an injury waiver as he would have been ineligible for missing the first eight races. A week later, at Daytona, Stewart entered the top-30. Aided by seven top-10 and five top-5 finishes, he finished the regular season with a spot in the Chase, his ninth career appearance and first since 2012.
Stewart fell short of advancing out of the Round of 16 with finishes of 16th, 23rd and 13th in the round’s three races, missing the final transfer position by 11 points. He recorded his final top-10 at Charlotte (9th) and wrapped up his Cup career with a 22nd-place finish at Homestead.
The Sonoma victory. With his father Nelson in attendance, Stewart needed to record a win if he wanted to become eligible for the Chase.
After a debris caution on lap 89, Stewart elected to stay out while the leaders pitted, which placed him at the front of the field for the restart. When the race resumed two laps later, he began to hold off a charging Denny Hamlin. Another caution, this time for Michael McDowell’s car stopping on the track, set up another restart with 14 laps to go. Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin attempted to close in on Stewart but were unable to.
On the final lap, Hamlin passed Stewart in turn 7A and led until the last turn. There, Stewart dove to the inside line, where he and Hamlin made contact and sent Hamlin’s #11 car into the wall.
Stewart was able to hold on to score his first victory since 2013 at Dover. It was also his first win at a road course since Watkins Glen in 2009.
“It just puts so much behind him and closure to a lot of things to be back in Victory Lane,” Stewart’s teammate Kevin Harvick stated. “For the company to have him winning… I know he’s just had a miserable three years. To see him in Victory Lane, I’m happier for him than anything we’ve done in the past because it personally is such an accomplishment for him.”
The buggy accident in January. While riding in California with a group of friends, including fellow Cup drivers Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon, Stewart’s buggy fell off a 25-foot drop and suffered a fractured vertebrae.
The accident forced Stewart out of a race car once again, the third time since 2013 that he had to miss Cup races after his leg injury in 2013 and the Kevin Ward Jr. accident in 2014. Brian Vickers and Ty Dillon drove the #14 in Stewart’s place for the first eight races, the former recording the team’s best finish in that stretch with a 7th-place finish at Martinsville.
Although his Cup career is coming to an end, Stewart has no intentions of ending his racing career as a whole. He compared his career to a halftime period in other sports, with his final Cup race being that point.
“I think the second half of my life is going to be even more exciting than the first half was,” he remarked.
Stewart is expected to return to dirt track racing in 2017 onward, with his father noting his hopes of competing for a World of Outlaws championship. At the same time, Stewart has also expressed interest in performing test sessions with Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas’ F1 team, racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (which he quipped he received “a light, semi-offer” to compete in) and even the Goodwood Festival of Speed, an event that former driver Mike Skinner stated is one that Stewart should run in a sprint car.
In NASCAR, Stewart’s duties as a team owner will also receive focus with his #14 ride being taken over by Clint Bowyer. As Stewart-Haas Racing switches to Ford and forms an Xfinity Series team, Stewart will be juggling both dirt track and team ownership roles in 2017.
Enjoy your retirement, Smoke!
Featured image courtesy of NASCAR.com