When the checkered flag falls in Miami this weekend, not only will it mark the end of another thrilling NASCAR season, but it also will close the curtain on the career of one of the sport’s most successful drivers.

After an 18-year NASCAR career, three-time champion Tony Stewart will take his last laps in a remarkable run that saw him capture 49 victories and earn millions of fans due to his unique driving style, honed during his early days as an open-wheel racer. The driver fans call “Smoke” has been a part of the Coca-Cola Racing Family his entire career, and before his final race, Stewart reflected on his time behind the wheel.

Tony Stewart celebrates winning the Coke zero 400 at DAYTONA International Speedway on July 7, 2012. This marked Stewart’s third win of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. 

Harold Hinson Photography


How have you approached your final season in NASCAR? Did you purposely avoid a 'farewell tour' in favor of a low-key approach, despite your popularity?

Before the season started, we said our only goal was to go out and have fun – anything else would be icing on the cake. It’s been fun, but we’ve also been able to run really well. We wanted to keep having fun all the way to Homestead, and I think we did that. It was cool for everyone to come out and see us race a final time in NASCAR. I didn’t want all the ceremonies and stuff like that. I just wanted fans to see me race well.

When you look back on your NASCAR career, what are some memories that you will cherish? Do you have a favorite race? A favorite victory?

“We’ve won 49 races and three championships, so it’s hard to pick just one. I think winning the Brickyard the first time (in 2005) was special. My dad was in the turn two suites at Indianapolis, and he was pressed up close to the fence when I drove by on the victory lap. I could see him and it was a pretty cool moment. There’s so many good moments, but that one ranks up there.

Your background was slightly different than some of the other NASCAR drivers, coming from open-wheel racing – did you feel that helped you and how?

Tony Stewart, age 16, and his Endurokart in 1987. Stewart was the 1987 World Karting Association National Champion.

Tony Stewart Racing

The open-wheel series allowed guys like me to learn and show our skills and get the attention of the people who ran NASCAR teams. When they saw that we could adapt pretty quickly it kind of opened the flood gates. I’m very proud to be an open wheel racer just as I am proud about what we have done in NASCAR. The dirt tracks are important to me and I can’t wait to get back there and race with those guys.

You’ve always been one of the more popular drivers in NASCAR. How important have the fans been to you during your career?

The fans make this sport. We get to do what we love to do because the fans come to the track, watch on television and support the companies who sponsor us. NASCAR has done a great job thinking of the fans over the years – probably better than any other sport. My fans and have stood by me in good times and in the tough times and I really appreciate that.

Tony Stewart high-fives fans as he is introduced prior to the 2014 Coke zero 400 at DAYTONA International Speedway. 

 

Harold Hinson Photography

What do you feel like your NASCAR legacy will be?

I’ll let others decide that. I think the victories and championships will certainly be part of it, but so will the success we’ve had at Stewart-Haas Racing. I followed in the path of Jeff Gordon to NASCAR and others followed me. I can’t take all of the credit. We’ve been really fortunate to work with some good people over the years. Without them there wouldn’t be a legacy. 

The Coca-Cola Racing Family poses for a photo prior to the 2016 Coca-Cola Racing Family Ride Along at DAYTONA International Speedway.

Harold Hinson Photography

You’ve been part of the Coca-Cola Racing Family your entire career. What does the relationship between Coke and NASCAR mean to you?

I’ve been able to do a lot of cool things and meet a lot of cool people working with Coke. We’ve done a lot of good as well raising awareness for a bunch of worthy charities and causes. I’ve also met a lot of Coke drinkers from all over the world. Coke has been one of my cornerstone partners since all of this started. I’ll always be a Coke driver in my mind.

How much fun has it been to film the Coke Racing commercials over the years? Are you the best actor in the 'family'?

I don’t know about being the best actor. I have had a blast with the commercials. People see these commercials and ask me about them all the time. They were a lot of fun to make, and I’ve made a lot friends over the years doing them. I hope Coke customers enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed making them.

Tony Stewart poses with the No. 14 Coca-Cola Chevrolet at the press announcement unveiling this special paint scheme. The No. 14 Coca-Cola Chevrolet graced the track during the 2016 Southern 500 race weekend at Darlington Raceway during Labor Day weekend. The race’s “Throwback” theme honors NASCAR’s rich history and tradition. 

What’s your favorite Coca-Cola memory?

I’ve always drank Coke. Even if Coke hadn’t become one of my sponsors, I’d still drink it. I love it.

Do you ever envision a day when you don’t have the racing bug?

No, I’ll always be racing. It’s all I have ever done and probably will do. My dad is still racing in his 70s, so I don’t see why I can’t keep doing it as long as he has. I look at retiring from Sprint Cup racing as the halftime of my career. I won’t be racing in NASCAR but I’ll be racing somewhere just about every weekend in 2017.

Fans can bid Stewart farewell on Twitter using the #CheersTony hashtag.