NASCAR: Why I Will Always Support Tony Stewart

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

Tony Stewart has always been a polarizing figure inside NASCAR and out, but its the personal connections that Stewart makes that are why he resonates with many fans across the country. Here is a personalized story of why I have always been a fan of ‘Smoke’ through thick and thin and will continue to be.

It was a warm Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2003, and the local Bass Pro Shops was having its “grand opening” celebration. Tony Stewart was a part of the celebration to no surprise because of his relationship with Johnny Morris and Bass Pro. He had an autograph session for the fans and that was the talk of the town. My parents brought me over to the session after they got back from work. Unfortunately we showed up late and the session was over.

I was heartbroken because I was so close to meeting my favorite driver at just seven years old. As we walk out of the newly opened Bass Pro and into the food court, we see Tony racing slot cars in a little slot-car shop. My family urges me to go ask for an autograph. My formerly shy self decides to go ahead and walk up to him. When I approach Tony, its not the brash and hot-headed Tony we are all accustomed to, its a kind and soft-hearted man. I ask him to sign my 2001 Home Depot #20 plaque and my Tony Stewart fishing lure, and he says “Of course little man,” signs them, and then gives me a hug.

That one singular moment is my most favorite NASCAR memory, and one of my favorite moments in my entire life. I happily thank Tony and exit the mall with the brightest smile ever. That cemented my idolization and dedication to Tony Stewart. A few years later, at nine years old, I got to cheer on Tony to his second championship in the 2005 season, and saw him grow from the most villainous driver in NASCAR to one of its most celebrated. I still get chills watching this:

Fast forward to the morning of August 10th, 2014. After working late the previous evening and going to bed early to get up early for the Cup race at Watkins Glen, I did not check my phone for the latest NASCAR news. To boot, in the morning I wake up a little late and rush to get ready to make it over to my girlfriend’s house (former, but we are still good friends) to go with her parents. I once again did not check my phone.

When I arrive, her father rushes out to tell me the news that had rocked NASCAR that night and early morning. Tony Stewart had been involved in the fatal accident with Kevin Ward at Canandaigua. I did not believe it, until I turn on my phone to see it littered with notifications detailing the incident. I was devastated. The driver I had been a devoted fan of for over a decade through championships and heartache had been involved in a horrible accident, and, at the time, was being accused of murder from many fans.

Aug 10, 2014; Watkins Glen, NY, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver AJ Allmendinger (47) celebrates in victory lane after winning the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports /

Of course, we still are heading to WGI for the race. I sat in disbelief for the two-hour ride. We get to the track, and it is still in limbo whether or not Tony is racing (mind you, the year before I missed him at WGI as well because of another dirt race incident). This is the talk of the track no doubt. Eventually it is announced that Stewart would not be racing, which was not a surprise, but was still upsetting. I still proudly wore my No. 14 gear despite many dirty looks and heckles (there were many fellow fans going through the same experience). AJ Allmendinger wins the race in one of the most feel-good wins you will see, to help dismantle the strange air around the track.

I had to defend Tony in the following days and weeks on social media, to friends at work, and everywhere. Sometimes I still have to when the casual fan tell me Stewart is a “murderer.” Thankfully, he was absolved of any criminal action in the incident as resumes racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway three weeks later, after taking time off to grieve.

That incident may have taken part of Tony’s driving ability away, as some people say. He struggled in the final races of that tumultuous 2014 season. 2015 had high hopes for Tony to make a comeback, but he ended up having the worst season of his career, managing only 3 top-tens and a 28th-place points finish. In September, he decided to announce that the 2016 season would be his last at the Sprint Cup Series level.

We progress to 2016. Anticipation mounts as the calendar turns to February and the Daytona 500 is getting ever closer. News breaks on February 2nd that Tony Stewart has been hospitalized with a back injury as a result of an ATV accident in California. Another devastating news story. Tony would be missing the first part of the season because of this, and we still do not know for sure when he will be returning.

The reason that myself and many other ‘Smoke’ fans continue to support him, through the triumph and tragedy, is because of his passion for racing, his legendary talent, and most of all, the personal connections he makes to each fan that he can. That autograph session in Central New York in 2003 probably is a faint memory to ‘Smoke,’ but to me that was the moment of a lifetime. Tony Stewart is a humble and kind-hearted man. Very often we hear of the stories that make Tony one of the most popular drivers in history. He has given away cars to short track dirt racers who could not make the main-event, lent a plane to Justin Wilson’s family after the Pocono tragedy, created a foundation to help ill children and animals, and was even once voted USA Weekend’s “Most Caring Athlete.”

In addition to being a great man off the track, Tony also happens one of the best drivers in history on it. He has won on just about every racing surface and in every automobile he has driven. He has championships in USAC,  Indycar, and is most known for his three titles in the Sprint Cup Series. While the Cup Series is not racing, Tony strives to get in any racing vehicle he can, be it sprint cars, modifieds, Xfinity races at Daytona, or even an ATV.

As we all know, that passion gotten Tony into some unfortunate situations, but he continues to do it. He is a racer in the fullest, at heart and mind. He does not have children, or much other interests to occupy him, he has racing and his fans. This passion translates to success on the racetrack and resonates with fans of racing like yours truly.

Let us visit the 2011 Chase,  one of Tony’s crowning achievements. After a win-less regular season that saw him barely make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Tony was lacking confidence in his abilities and his team. Little did we know then that he would have perhaps the greatest 10-race stretch in NASCAR history. He wheeled the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet to victories in each of the first two events at Chicagoland and New Hampshire.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford 400
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 /

He then came back to Earth with a few bumps in the road at Dover and Kansas. In the final six events, he would finish no worse than eighth. He came back from a lap down and passed Jimmie Johnson on the penultimate lap to win at Martinsville, and dominated the following week at Texas. He led the most laps at Phoenix and ended up third.

Coming into the final race at Homestead, Tony trailed Carl Edwards by three points in what had shaped up as a fantastic duel for the title. The Ford 400 at Homestead became an instant classic, with Tony and Carl exchanging the lead many times, enjoy the finish courtesy of YouTube:

Tony came out on top in a virtual tie with Edwards, winning the championship courtesy of a tiebreaker: his five wins to just one for Carl. That epic duel became the closest points battle in NASCAR history.

It is the passion, the dedication, the personal connections, and good moments that keep Tony Stewart fans supporting him. No matter what has happened or has yet to happen in Tony’s roller-coaster career, I will always be a devoted fan. That sunny afternoon in 2003 cemented me being a fan of ‘Smoke,’ and getting to see him win twice live at Watkins Glen (2007 and 2009) and many more times on television have been amazing memories.

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Thank you Tony, through thick and thin you have my support and that of countless other No. 14 fans!