This one you saw coming, if you had even one eye open. Winter became spring became summer became fall in 2015, and everything you saw from Tony Stewart told you the fun had gone out of something that used to be food to him.
He looked like a man who’d had all the joy wrung out of him. And he drove like it.
The day when Smoke became a back marker and didn’t openly rage about it was a day none of us thought we’d ever see, and it has been profoundly sad to watch. Whatever happened 14 months ago on that dark night on the dirt in upstate New York seemed to steal something essential from the man, and he’s never gotten it back.
And so no surprise this morning at reports that, later this week, Stewart will announce he’s stepping out of the race car, ending his NASCAR career after 48 wins and three Cup titles.
You could have retired on your winnings betting that, at 45, Stewart wouldn’t be close to being done, but that was before New York and Kevin Ward and everything that has come after. You kill a man with your race car, it has to change something inside you. Listening to the Ward family and others say you did it on purpose, or the next thing to it, no doubt only intensifies that change.
No one but Stewart can say for a certainty that's true, of course, but the circumstantial evidence is significant. Or maybe you thought you’d see a day when, eight months and 28 races deep in the endless NASCAR season, Tony Stewart would have led a total of 24 laps.
Even measured against his fall-off in 2013 and ’14 -- when he won once, had eight top fives and led a mere 239 laps – that is a precipitous tumble. Some inner fire (and there has always been fire where there was Smoke) has gone cold, or at the very least seems to have. It’s been a hurtful thing to watch, considering this was a man whose idea of a vacation, deep into his decorated NASCAR career, was to jump into a midget car and tear around Memorial Coliseum with kids half or even a third his age.
The man lived to go fast. He lived for the combat.
A for-instance: When the word came down this morning that he’s going to hang ‘em up, I flashed back immediately to the late stages of the 2007 Brickyard 400, when Stewart was closing in on Kevin Harvick. Lap by lap, corner by corner, that orange Home Depot No. 20 got closer, reeling in Harvick at a place not notable for such occurrences. And at one point, Stewart’s delight in the chase spilled over onto his radio feed.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” Stewart was heard to say as he crowded Harvick’s bumper, a bit of snark that was pure unfiltered Smoke.That’s the Tony Stewart I’ll remember this week. As should we all.
Update: Stewart announced Wednesday he would run one more season in 2016 and then step out of the car.