Tony Stewart takes final NASCAR ride of championship career

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) His mood lightened, Tony Stewart sounded at peace heading into his final NASCAR race.

''Guys, it's been a hell of a ride for 18 years,'' he said over the radio. ''Let's go out here and have one more good day.''

He's had plenty of great ones over a two-decade career.

Stewart had steeled his emotions in the lead-up to his final start Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart kept distractions at bay and close friends nearby before Sunday's race.

His No. 14 Chevrolet was barricaded and protected by armed police officers before the season finale. His race car was essentially sitting in Turn 4, well away from the rest of the field. A banner flew nearby to tell fans where they could get a glimpse of the three-time Cup series champion.

''It's time. Let's go. I'm ready,'' Stewart said.

Stewart was feted with tributes all weekend by fellow drivers, fans, colleagues and every person who felt connected to him in even the smallest ways. He shed the gruff, prickly mood and became an almost happy-go-lucky guy. Stewart, clean-shaven, was all smiles as he posed for photo after photo, and hugged or wrapped his arm around crew members, and even the troops.

Homestead saluted the driver known as ''Smoke'' with a coordinated ''Thank you, Tony!'' yell from the grandstands as the photo ops stayed on schedule.

''My last photo with the boys,'' a Chevy employee shrieked.

Jeff Gordon, the retired four-time champ, stopped by for a quick chat with Stewart. A year ago, Gordon was mobbed by so many fans that he struggled to get to his car before the finale.

IndyCar driver Marco Andretti lingered near Stewart's car, and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves called Smoke one of racing's greatest drivers.

NASCAR added a ceremonial pace lap with Stewart leading the field before the race. There was a Ford truck that flew a ''Thank you, Smoke. 14'' banner in front of him.

His Chevrolet – with dates of each of his 49 career wins etched into the paint scheme on the bumper – took a lap down pit road, and Stewart slapped hands with crew members for all NASCAR teams.

NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton thanked Stewart for ''the character and passion you brought to NASCAR all throughout your career.''

Stewart's career was given the highlight reel treatment in the pre-race drivers meeting with a colorful video of his biggest wins, playful banter and snippy one-liners. NASCAR drivers and crew members gave Stewart a rousing standing ovation. Stewart eventually stood and smiled, waiving in acknowledgment at the outpouring of affection.

Stewart is just retiring from NASCAR driving. He has an ownership stake in Stewart-Haas Racing and will continue to race all over the country next year at the grassroots level. He may not be done yet poking NASCAR's leaders.

''You understand, we still invite owners to the haulers sometimes, too,'' Helton quipped.

NASCAR let fans ''Ride along with Tony Stewart, one last time'' and ran a live feed of the 14's in-car camera.

Stewart's helmet was a weathered throwback that looked as if it had been hanging in a barn on his Indiana farm for decades. It appeared rusted, said ''Smoke. Unlimited Speed,'' and was a gritty symbol of one of the last true racers. The hood of Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet is emblazoned with photos from his championship years next to the slogan ''Always a Racer, Forever a Champion.''

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