Opinion: Auto racing desperately needs more guys like Tony Stewart

It’s really good that Tony Stewart isn’t going anywhere.

While Stewart will retire from driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series after the 2016 season, he’ll still be around as the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and all of his various other enterprises.

And that’s important, because the sport of auto racing needs him around. Badly.

I’ve known Stewart for at least 17 years — I think our first meeting was at an open-wheel race in the IRL at Dover in ’98 — and since then, I’ve seen about every facet of his personality, from cantankerous, mean and confrontational to sarcastic, bitingly funny and kind in ways most people would never believe.

Over the years, he’s yelled at me, pinched me on the ass on pit road and poked fun at everybody and everything. For a journalist, Stewart is easy to cover, because you know something interesting will come out of his mouth; you just don’t know what it might be.

Stewart’s legacy on-track is unquestioned: He’s the only man to win championships in both the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, where he has three titles, and the IRL. The only drivers with more NASCAR Premier Series titles than Stewart are named Petty, Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon. Elite company, to be sure.

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Like the late, great Dale Earnhardt, Stewart has helped countless racers, friends and good causes with little or no attention. In fact, neither Earnhardt nor Stewart ever wanted people to tell stories about the help each of them gave out.

Putting Stewart’s career in context has gotten more complicated in the last two years because of his two sprint car accidents, one of which badly injured Stewart and the other that resulted in the death of Kevin Ward Jr. There is no question that Stewart is a changed man in the past two years. How could you not be after what he’s been through?

Ultimately, though, Stewart’s legacy isn’t his 48 Sprint Cup race victories and three championships, nor is it two grisly and heartbreaking accidents in the past two years.

If you wade through the personas Stewart puts on in public — funny Tony, angry Tony, smart-ass Tony, charming Tony, it doesn’t matter — at his core is one central truth: You will never meet a human being who cares more about auto racing than Tony Stewart does. All auto racing.

Yes, Stewart wants to win every time he gets behind the wheel of a car. That’s a mind-set all champions share: You want to be the best.

Tony Stewart will drive again after 2016, just not in the Sprint Cup Series

But Stewart doesn’t just want to be successful himself. He wants his teams to be successful. He wants NASCAR to be successful. He wants the track owner who nobody has ever heard of with the 1,000-seat dirt track in BFE to be successful. He wants the 16-year-old kid with talent and a dream, but without two nickels to rub together, to be successful.

Stewart doesn’t just want to win himself; he wants racing to win. You want proof? Look at the annual Performance Racing Industry show in Indianapolis he built out of nothing. Look at the effort he’s put into the All-Star Circuit of Champions sprint car series he bought. Look at how he’s built on the great foundation Earl Baltes created at Eldora Speedway. And, of course, look at how he helped take a backmarker NASCAR Sprint Cup team and win two championships over the last six years or how he built his hugely successful open-wheel team.

This is a man who knows how to build businesses and relationships and thrives on the success of both. He has the talent and the charisma to get things done and he is someone who by efforts and his presence has made auto racing better.

Will he be missed behind the wheel? Of course, he will.

But be very happy he’ll still be around. The sport needs more guys like him.