In the 21st Century, a NASCAR star — think Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne — can be more polished than a TV talk show host.
Right now, a stock-car racer can be as big a social media phenomenon — think Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick — as pop stars.
Tony Stewart is — and always has been — a racecar driver in the A.J. Foyt mold.
On Saturday night, in the Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway, Stewart drove in a Sprint Cup race in the commonwealth for the final time.
After three years filled with off-the-track adversity and tragedy, Stewart, 45, announced prior to this season that 2016 would be his final year driving in NASCAR’s top series.
Fans from around the Midwest were on hand at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night to salute the throwback racecar driver, who notched a fifth-place finish.
“He’s the last true, true racer this sport has had,” said Don Short of Versailles, Ohio.
Cincinnati’s John Rentz transferred his rooting allegiance from Dale Earnhardt the elder to Stewart.
“Tony was the same kind of mindset,” Rentz says. “Aggressiveness, no-holds barred, the expression ‘Didn’t take (crap) from anybody.’ And I liked that.”
Rachel Edwards, a Miami (Ohio) University student, said her family relishes Stewart’s approach to his craft.
“He’s passionate about it,” Edwards said. “I love his attitude about racing. We’ve been ‘Smoke’ fans (Stewart’s nickname) in our family for a long, long time.”
There’s a case to be made that Stewart is the best racecar driver of this generation. It is built on versatility.
In 1997, a young Stewart won the season championship of what is now the IndyCar Series. Five years later, he won the first of his three NASCAR Sprint Cup titles.
Think of all the elite open-wheel racers — Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. — who have made the jump to NASCAR this century. They all failed to match their IndyCar success.
It took Stewart five years to go from open-wheel champ to stock-car champ.
“You could put him on a tricycle and he’ll find a way to win,” said Glenn Morris of Houston, Ohio.
That is an echo of Stewart’s idol, Foyt, who won both the Indianapolis 500 (four times) and the Daytona 500.
The last three years have been brutal for Stewart. In August, 2013, he broke two bones in his right leg in a sprint car crash at a track in Oskaloosa, Iowa. It caused him to miss the final 15 Sprint Cup races of 2013 and left him with a limp.
What happened Aug. 9, 2014, in a sprint car race at Canandaigua, N.Y. was far worse. After a rival driver, Kevin Ward, Jr., 20, crashed, Ward left his vehicle and approached the other cars on the track while they were circling under caution.
Stewart’s car struck Ward Jr. The young driver was declared dead 45 minutes later.
No criminal charges were filed against Stewart, but Ward Jr.’s family has filed a wrongful death suit against the NASCAR star.
For Stewart’s fans, watching him endure so much hardship has been trying.
“It was hard to watch as a fan knowing the incident that happened on that dirt track probably permanently changed him,” Rentz said.
Said Tulsa, Okla.’s Nancy Baker: “You just feel sorry for him.”
Last year, Stewart suffered through a dismal Sprint Cup season, finishing 28th in the points standings. This year, Stewart missed the first eight races because of injuries suffered while flipping a dune buggy.
Yet, two races ago, flashing some of his old skill and fire, Stewart outdueled Denny Hamlin to win on the road course at Sonoma.
“That renewed my hopes he could still win a race,” Rentz said.
Kentucky Speedway is some 80 miles from Stewart’s home in Columbus, Ind.
Many fans in Sparta on Saturday said they felt a geographic connection with Stewart.
Chris Johns of Ross, Ohio, used to see Stewart at minor-league hockey games in Cincinnati. “He’d come out, drop the first puck, it was pretty cool,” Johns said.
Vallonia, Ind.’s, Becky Raisor Weston knew Stewart growing up. In fact, as a youthful prank, the future NASCAR star once put worms in her bed.
“He’s the same off the track as he is on the track,” she said. “He’s not fake. He tells you what he thinks whether you like it or not.”
Once Stewart is gone, Tulsa, Okla.’s Jim Baker says NASCAR has no one who can replace its star from the old school.
“I’m going to hate to see him go,” Baker said. “Even though he’s a little bit crotchety, he’s fun to watch.”