KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – For the last three decades, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have dominated the headlines in American motorsports starting on the short tracks of Indiana in the early 1990s before both climbed to the pinnacle of the racing world in NASCAR.
They’ve combined for 1,418 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts, 142 wins, 96 poles, 37,751 laps led and seven championships, not to mention countless open-wheel victories and titles, as well as success in other NASCAR series.
Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway marks the final start together for Gordon, whose substitution role for Dale Earnhardt Jr. ends this weekend, and Stewart, whose Sprint Cup career concludes at season’s end. For one final race, fans will see two of the drivers whose careers blazed the path for open-wheel drivers into NASCAR and raised the sport to unprecedented popularity.
Or at least it is supposed to be.
“Keep in mind we thought we were doing this last year,” Stewart said with a laugh, referring to Gordon’s 2015 retirement tour before this season’s unexpected call to duty as a substitute driver. “Who knows, (Gordon) might be around here 10 more years at the rate he is going.”
Joking aside, Stewart will talk at length about the admiration and respect he has for Gordon, as well as the friendship developed between the two over the years. His actions spoke louder than words in July during a late caution in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when he paid Gordon the ultimate compliment.
Stewart came over the team radio and asked if spotter Bob Jeffrey would talk with Gordon’s spotter about making a final lap together after the checkered flag fell. The impromptu lap in front of the home-state fans on their favorite racetrack became one of the signature moments of the 2016 season and NASCAR history.
“I can say that just ranks in the top-three coolest moments of my 18 years in this series,” Stewart said after the race. “To share that moment with Jeff here at Indianapolis – I don’t know, I don’t even have the words for it. That is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Months later, the moment brings back good memories.
“The Indy deal was special because it was Indy,” Stewart said. “He lived in Pittsboro (Indiana) – he wasn’t born there – a lot of his life. He was 20 minutes away from Indy and I was 40 minutes away (in Columbus, Indiana.) That was a special place to us and special we could share that moment.’”
Stewart, however, won’t be in the mood to reminisce about Gordon or plan any comemorative moments this weekend at Martinsville. Instead, he’s trying to use his final four races to earn his 50th career victory, as well as secure 13th place in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs after he fell just short of advancing to the Round of 12. A 32nd-place finish at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway last weekend dropped him to 14th in the points, 14 behind 13th-place Kyle Larsen.
After missing the first eight races because of an offseason injury, Stewart has enjoyed a successful final season in Sprint Cup racing, posting five top-five finishes and eight top-10s in 24 races, including a June victory at Sonoma (Calif.) International Raceway.
“It’s been fun to meet people at the racetrack who’ve come to the track because this is our final year,” Stewart said. “It kind of validates why we did what we did. It’s been fun. I still wish we were in the middle of the Chase but, since we aren’t, I guess the most positive thing is to have fun these last few weeks, then do everything we can to win a race or as many as we can before it’s over and have fun. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
The flat, half-mile, paperclip-shaped track in Martinsville could be the place Stewart earns the milestone victory. He owns three wins, 10 top-fives and 17 top-10s and has led a total of 1,234 laps in his 33 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville. His average Martinsville start is 12.7, his average finish is 13.7, and he has a lap-completion rate of 96.7 percent. He missed the April race while he was recovering from injuries suffered in an offseason accident.
Sunday might be an end of an era, but maybe in their final Sprint Cup race together after 18 years of racing, there’s time to create another memory or two.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is the challenge of Martinsville?
“Nowadays, our cars drive so well you just race wide open. It’s not as important to be a smart racecar driver as it is to be fast. The thing about Martinsville is, no matter what happens, tire wear is still a factor. You have to be smart, you have to take care of your tires. That’s what I like about it now. Those tracks are becoming a minority of the tracks we go to. You don’t have to take care of your tires hardly at all any more at the majority of the tracks we go to. Martinsville is still one of those tracks where you still have to be smart and take care of your car.”
What is short-track etiquette?
“I’m finding the longer I am here, the definition is different for everybody. When I started in the sport, you had Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and a host of guys who had a pretty strict etiquette and you played by the rules. If you didn’t, when you were sitting there crashed against the wall, you had plenty of time to think about what you did wrong. Now you see guys do things, especially at Martinsville, that they don’t normally do anywhere else. You fight to get to the bottom of the racetrack because you have to. You just can’t run that second groove. You see them making really sketchy moves to get down as soon as they can.”
Was your 2011 win at Martinsville pivotal to winning your third title?
“I remember when I got out of the car after the race and finally got done with the media and photos, we went back to the bus and I remember thinking, ‘This is our championship to win. They are going to have to take it away from us.’ I don’t remember if we were third or fourth in the points at the time, but I remember that moment being the moment I thought, ‘This is ours and they are going to have to take it away from us, now.’”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine