Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: Tony Stewart’s Tough Decision

Beating up on NASCAR these days is all too easy. Beating up on Tony Stewart? He does that to himself every week. The most serious slump in the Cup Series shows no signs of slowing, with Smoke a whopping 132 points outside the Chase heading to Indianapolis this weekend. 26th in the standings, earning just one top-10 finish all year, Kyle Busch is likely to jump him by the time the regular season wraps up at Richmond. Yes, it really is that bad; you’ve got a three-time champion, placed in top-tier equipment, getting passed by a guy who missed the season’s first 11 races.

Stewart’s shoddy summer was highlighted by a press conference last week that had many questioning whether it was Smoke or Eeyore answering on the other line. Speaking in a somber tone, Stewart fended off questions of retirement while making no excuses for what’s easily the worst 19-race stretch of his career. While making the Chase is still possible – the series heads to one of Stewart’s best tracks, Indianapolis, this weekend – in all likelihood the No. 14 team is already focused on rebuilding for 2016.

Some feel like Stewart, the same age as a retiring Jeff Gordon (44), should join his rival in sailing off into the sunset. For now, it doesn’t look like that will happen, but what are the chances realistically Smoke will experience a revival?

To answer that question, we turn to history and a look at how some veterans wound up their careers. While everyone is different, Stewart sits at a pivotal age after which most driver skills have begun to decline. Consider….

Richard Petty: At age 44, NASCAR’s “King” was two years removed from his last title, dropping to eighth in points that season – his worst performance since 1965. The next year, he was winless at 45, earned just five more victories and was never a serious title contender the rest of his career.

David Pearson: The “Silver Fox” was fired at 44 from the best ride he’d ever known – the famed Wood Brothers’ No. 21. Following an awkward incident at Darlington where the tires fell off his car, Pearson found himself unemployed and would win just once the remainder of his Cup Series career. He never ran more than 12 races in a season after that.

Darrell Waltrip: Everyone knows how “Boogity, boogity, boogity” was looked at by some as a booger clogging up the Cup Series tour in the late 1990s. Waltrip, choosing to own his own team at age 44, never finished inside the top five in the Cup standings the rest of his career. By age 45, he was done winning and spent the next eight years mostly riding around at the back of the field.

Cale Yarborough: At age 44, Yarborough still ran strong, winning four times and capturing the 1983 Daytona 500. But within two years, he had won his final Cup race and was fully retired from the sport by the end of 1988.

Dale Earnhardt: Earnhardt, at Stewart’s age, was going through what would later be known as a “changing of the guard.” Losing an eighth Cup title to a young upstart named Jeff Gordon, the Intimidator went on a slow but downhill slide after that. A serious shoulder injury the following year dashed all hopes of a title; the next one (1997) resulted in his first winless season since 1981. Earnhardt was runner-up in points in 2000 but that was based more on consistency; his 24 top 10s balanced out a year with only two victories.

Certainly, there have been exceptions to this rule: Harry Gant and Mark Martin come to mind. Gant, the most successful NASCAR driver ever in his 50s, once won four races in a row on the circuit at age 51. Martin, who ran runner-up to Jimmie Johnson for the title in ’09 saw his career reborn with Hendrick Motorsports. But considering Stewart drives Hendrick equipment now, one has to ask the question whether he could ever be in a better scenario. One team can only remain on top for so long; Stewart’s group, with reigning champion Kevin Harvick in its stable could not ask for better information and support. Even if crew chief Chad Johnston gets let go, chances are Smoke won’t nab a crew chief who’s had a ton more success. In some ways, there’s nowhere to go but down at the No. 14 Chevrolet.

That’s not to say it’s easy to walk out on a sport you’ve loved. Just ask Waltrip, Yarborough or Petty at age 44 if they wanted to quit. The realities of retirement aren’t easy for athletes, starting over with a full 30-40 years of good health left to go. Building a second career isn’t easy when you’ve already had the best work environment you’d ever produce. Add in the complexity of Stewart, still reeling from a leg injury plus the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy last year and it’s clear the decision ahead isn’t easy.

Yet it’s also one history says is on the horizon. Sadly, the one person NASCAR drivers can never outrace is Father Time.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Bill B

I think the historical numbers you supplied speak for themselves. As a Gordon fan I am glad he is retiring. He could easily hang around another 5 years and he may win a few races and even remain chase worthy, but there is no doubt the law of diminishing returns is taking place. Better to go out before you end up a joke like DW did.
Personally I think Tony should seriously think about retiring but it is his decision. It’s not like he won’t have anything to do being both a team owner and track owner. There is no doubt that his best days are behind him.


It is difficult to watch a driver struggle and I’m not even a Tony fan but I know a lot of people are. Like Bill B, I’m a Gordon fan, always have been. I, too, am glad to see that he made the decision to retire from the sport NOW and not waiting for the struggles to get worse. The 24’s struggles with the new car and the new chase have been in the news. Last year with that iteration of the “COT”, he had a darn good season and he’s not having a bad one this year, although once again, struggling with the changes and that is hard for me to watch.

As an outsider, looking in, I’d say Tony should retire, too, but he’s the only one who can decide if he can live with that decision. Certainly he’s got other things he could focus on, but considering how much racing, both in the Cup series and outside of it he has always done, it is hard to leave off doing what you love. Unfortunately, too, because of what happened with his own injury and then the death of Ward, he’s cut off in a way from the things that were “fun” rather than his day job in Cup on top of it.

Tim S.

One of my favorite things about Stewart was always his barnstorming, that desire to run anything, anywhere, anytime. If he could banish his demons, whatever they are, I would like to see him retire or semi-retire from Cup, and run everything from Le Mans down to hobby stocks, appearing in Cup for his favorite events.

Like you and Bill B with Gordon, when Stewart goes I hang it up.


I can’t help but wonder that Gordon is retiring because he is tired of the gimmick that Nascar has become. All these changes that were made to spice up “the show” can’t be sitting well with these veterans of the “sport”. He is still talented enough and has the equipment to race a few more years and still be competitive for a title, but I get the feeling he’s leaving because he is sick of the circus the “sport” has become with the entertainment being more important than being a legitimate sport. Maybe its his way of saying FU to Brian France.


Steve, yes, I think that may be part of it, too. There was a press conference after one of the races early this season and he was in the press room with Johnson & another driver and the media asked one of those “loaded” questions that you know can get a driver into trouble with NASCAR and he and Jimmie looked at each other and Gordon said “I’ve got this one”. I forget what he answered but it a more truthful response than we usually get from the drivers since NASCAR started fining them for saying “disparaging” things about the sport.

I see that F1 or Indycar, I forget which, has now instituted a similar policy.

I’m happy that they can’t fine the fans for our disparaging comments. I’d be broke!

Tim S — you can join us on the former fans bench!


Maybe somebody Tony respects should prod him in that direction. Junior Johnson told Richard Childress to put Dale Earnhardt in his car. It didn’t work out the first time because the car wasn’t good enough and Dale left, but it didn’t turn out too bad the second time. It’s hard to tell how good Childress was as a driver because, as an independent, he had to save his equipment rather than race hard and he finished in the top 10 five times.


I agree, it is difficult to watch a driver struggle when it is obvious to everyone but him that it is over. As annoying as he is, watching DW stumble to a pathetic end was downright painful.

Tim S.

Worse, I think, than Waltrip’s painful llater career was his blowing the chance he had to go out on a high note. When subbing for Steve Park in 1998, he had some spectacular runs. He could have climbed out of the Pennzoil car after that stretch and said, “there, I showed I’m not just a rolling chicane on-track” and done something else.


And as an afterthought, Pearson won the 1979 Southern 500 (the real one) subbing for Dale Earnhardt in Hoss Ellington’s car #2.


I don’t remember when it was but do remember Tony Stewart making a very demeaning statement about DW and his ability to drive a racecar. I thinking Waltrip figured it was just Tony being Tony at the time. Even though I wasn’t a Waltrip fan I know I felt sad for him and angry with Stewart after the statement was made. Let’s hope Stewart doesn’t become a target for criticism by hanging around too long. And as a Gordon fan I’m also glad to see him hanging it up.

Bill B

Yes Tony did make a demeaning remark to DW regarding his final seasons and how much he sucked. I think it was after DW retired and joined Fox. He asked Tony a tough question and Tony made a crack about how many champion provisional DW used in his final season.


Yep Bill that was it. Thanks for refreshing this old mind.


I remember that and I also remember thinking that it was unkind and uncalled for when Tony said it, but then Tony was good at dishing out the snark.

I agree, too, that he made a major mistake getting rid of Grubb as his crew chief. That seemed to be in a fit of pique, too.

william floyd

Like Tony said, his whole career he’s only driven cars that had a ton of horsepower and this year he lacks that so the learning curve has been really hard for him. Who knows if Nascar stays with the lower hp numbers, they keep changing things. Even though Jimmie has 4 wins it seems he and Chad are also trying to adjust to the lower hp this car has. Jimmie couldn’t drive the busch series before and win, that might be taking place with him too. I don’t see Jeff getting a win in this his final year, he and the team are off just enough, but they continue to get just high enough finishes. Next year Bowyer takes over the 10 car, so Tony will have 3 good drivers to get notes from, he just needs to learn to drive the busch car nascar has put him in.

Brian in PDX

Bowyer takes over the 10 car? Seriously? Where did you hear this?


It amazes me how people are so clouded by their dislike for Danica that they still think she is going to be replaced in Cup. Do people still not get it? She is the only female in the sport. She very marketable and will have a sponsor so she is not going anywhere anytime soon. She is a cash cow for Nascar regardless of what your personal feelings are for her. Its probably time to deal with it. If Danica were to ever win a race or make it in the Chase, we would have to put some of you on suicide watch.


While a fan of several drivers,(Since Dale left us) Tony has been on the top of that list most the time(has also had many stupid moments) due to his old school mentality & diversity…He used to just love to race anything. I also have been a life long fan of A.J. Foyt(competition,toughness & Winning) …It has been hard to watch Tonys situation this last couple of years & I fear it will not improve soon but I believe this is an attitude issue (yes he dosn’t like this car but drivers Drive) & maybe his old buddy (A.J.) could give that kick in the butt or get out speech because this is hard to watch…Danica finish’s ahead of him these days..I would love to see the old Tony Stewart back..The other week at Kentucky should have been perfect (car that will slide/float etc) but results & performance were the same…Kudo’s to Jeff to know when he felt it was right as I believe he had a lifetime contract with Hendricks..Best to All


Tony was never the same driver since he broke his leg. It even got worse after the accident last year. My opinion is that Tony’s heart and drive is not the same as it was. you can hear it in his voice when he gives an interview


Agree…Fix It!…If ya still wanna Race


Mr. September (Harry Gant) came within one lap of making it 5 in a row at age 51. As I recall he blew a tire or brake rotor with one to go and holding a large lead. The #3 I believe took the win.
Anything can happen in racing and usually does.
Tony might be down currently but I wouldn’t yet count him out. Next year should tell.

Kenny j

The problem with Tony Stewart is the crew chief, the biggest mistake Tony made was getting rid of Darian Grubb. It took Darien a little while to learn what Tony liked and then they were great the year we won the last championship. They got rid of Darian Grubb and he hasn’t won a race since. The crew TPS now just can’t seem to adjust the car to Tony’s likings it don’t matter if it’s too tight to loose not enough wedge he just can’t get the car to work it’s time to give up on him and get somebody else in there. Every week it’s the same old thing crew chief can’t make the car handle , just like Joey Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing, moves to a new team new crew chief and Shazam they’re almost unstoppable. Tony I know you’re friends with your crew chief but it’s time to move on. I stand behind you 100 percent don’t give up but you gotta make some changes before it’s too late


Agree that Darian going was a BIG mistake (Tonys made plenty) but Tony almost willed that set of very odd explainable set of circumstance…We used to call it the Will to Win..& it worked-Like most of life it can be attitude…Tony come back soon


Kenny……Tony won Dover in 2013 before he broke his leg…so he has won since he let Grubb go!! He also didn’t finish that season. Then the Ward death the following year made that season a disaster. He needs to get into a good place and race like he used to. He has a problem with less horsepower in these cars and can’t get a handle on it. Not making excuses but he IS HUMAN and age could be a factor. Just my opinion..but he should go race on dirt again and get that monkey off his back. Ward caused his own death not Tony. But it still was a horrible time. People calling him a murder and such…how can you get those horrible comments out of your head?


Kenny.. I forgot about year 2012…Tony won 3 races…THE DUEL! The Coke Zero, & Kobalt 400….all after Grubb was gone! People also forget Dale Jr went 4 years without a WIN! No fans ditched Jr!! LOL


“Life begins at 50” ..lol …Think I was in my late 20’s then but it sure was something to see..Note this was a button & label on the Bandit back then


For Gant it was a leaking front caliper that caused his problem.


Gant was also the beneficiary of having the cambered rear end, the first one in the sport I believe. That was the difference that made that team unbeatable for that brief streak.


I think for Tony this is a combination his physical/mental state and the changing rules. You see other drivers struggling with the new rules like Gordon, but Tony’s is way off the map. Hopefully, getting through his first full season since 2012 will put him in a better mental state in 2016. He’s been through a ton these past two years.


Stating Earnhardt only won two races while finishing second in points makes one wonder what one has to do to prove they still can drive. Stewart and Gordon for that matter would have been fine this year if the engine spacers rules would not have been instituted.


Reducing power on an antiquated engine(push rod) that other racing series can’t believe the power & reliability(efficiency= HP)is a Giant error..Nothing new for brians group


Kenny…i forgot about year 2012..Tony won 3 races = The Duel, COKE Zero, & Kobalt 400….all after GRUBB was gone. People forget that Dale Jr went 4 YEARS without a win! Junior Nation didn’t give up on him. LOL

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