Tony Stewart has had a forgettable swan song season to date. An ATV accident in January left him with an injured back and has sidelined him from racing so far this season.
The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion will miss his seventh race of the season when the green flag drops on Sunday night for the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS).
But Stewart is far from a forgotten man this weekend at TMS. The 44-year-old remains one of the most popular drivers among fans, and he’s kept his fingerprints on his team as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
“It’s a disappointment that he’s still injured, but I hope he’s going to be here for the fall race when I come back,” said Lana Olson, a Rogers, Ark., resident who regularly attends TMS events and had three Stewart flags flying above her infield campground.
“I’ve watched Tony since he was in IndyCar and came over to NASCAR. He was a champion in both series. He’s also spicy — I like that,” she added.
Stewart, known to racing fans as “Smoke,” has been known for his brashness on and off the track. He has won 48 Cup races in his career, including two at Texas, and announced his intentions to call it a career before the season.
Despite his injury, Stewart had been scheduled to make a rare appearance on Friday afternoon at Texas with SHR team-mates Brian Vickers and Danica Patrick to unveil a new TaxACT paint scheme promoting the company’s “military files free” initiative.
But Stewart no-showed the announcement with a SHR spokesman saying Stewart had yet to land. Stewart had also been expected to attend the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame gala later in the evening, as the track honored him with the Major Gen. Thomas Sadler Award for Stewart’s involvement with Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas chapter.
Even though Stewart wasn’t available to speak for himself, Vickers and Patrick made it clear that Stewart is fully invested in the team. Sure, he’d like to be racing, but he’s making an impact from the sidelines too.
“Tony’s been a great asset,” said Vickers, who has filled in for Stewart in four of the six races and will do so again this weekend.
“How he has stepped into this role as kind of an owner, coach, mentor, whatever you want to call it, has been really impressive. I know it’s hard for him not to be in the car, but I think he is really enjoying it,” he added.
NOT THE MICROMANAGING TYPE
Vickers said that he felt this is a glimpse into Stewart’s future in how he transitions into a full-time ownership role following the season. Stewart is not the micromanaging-type, either, according to Vickers.
“He has found a great balance,” Vickers said. “He gives great insight and tips and advice when it’s warranted or he feels like it’s needed or it’s asked for. But he doesn’t try to tell me how to drive the car. He doesn’t try to tell the team how to set the car up. He very much lets the team kind of run its course and be a guiding hand along the way.”
The results are beginning to show that sort of management style will work. Vickers finished seventh last week at Martinsville, his first top-10 run in the No. 14 Chevrolet.
For Patrick, meanwhile, it has been a relatively seamless transition from Stewart to Vickers as a team-mate on the track.
As she said, “Brian has done a great job and fits in really well. He’s intelligent with the race car, he’s helpful as a teammate and he’s fallen into place really well.”
Vickers and Patrick, though, each expressed eagerness to see Stewart return to racing. Vickers has enjoyed his time in the car, but “hates” that it’s because Stewart is injured. And Patrick would like to see her boss finish his final season in the car.
So would countless numbers of fans who still don “Smoke” gear.
“For Tony’s sake, it’d be great to get in the car just cause it’s his last year and you want all the opportunities you can to go out with a win at some point,” Patrick said. “And have an ending to a great, great career.”