HOMESTEAD, Fla. – It was a loose and laughing Tony Stewart who climbed behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet for the last time Sunday, an illustrious driving career coming to an end here in sunny South Florida.
Seventeen years, nine months and six days after Stewart made his premier series debut, the Indiana born and bred racer made his final start as a full-time NASCAR competitor, finishing 22nd in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Days from now, the final result won't be recalled. No one remembers who finished second, no one remembers who finished 22nd.
Stewart's NASCAR career, though, won't be forgotten.
Three championships, 49 wins, 308 top-10s, 15 poles. One of the best pure racers ever to grip a steering wheel.
"I've been looking forward to this day," a composed Stewart said afterward, surrounded by media as he leaned against his Stewart-Haas Racing entry on pit road.
"If I was never coming to a NASCAR race again I would feel much different and be a lot more emotional. But I'm going to be in Daytona in I don't know how many more weeks from now … I'll be there just in a different capacity. I've been ready to make a change and that starts now."
NASCAR's tribute to Tony Stewart
He remains co-owner of SHR, the four-team NASCAR Sprint Cup Series organization. He'll continue to race, just not full-time and not in NASCAR.
He spoke of how grateful he was, how flattered that crewmen lined pit road to wave him off as he began his 618th and final start. "That's a moment I'll never forget," he said. "It reminded me of when they did that for Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. when he won the Daytona 500. I don't know how you can top that moment."
Team owner Joe Gibbs, with whom Stewart won two of his three championships, stopped by to share a moment. Former teammate Kyle Busch, the 2015 champ, did as well.
Jeff Gordon, the four-time champion who retired here last year, made his way through the crowd to offer congratulations, too.
"Sand rails?" Stewart asked as Gordon stepped in.
"I wish," said Gordon. "Can we leave tomorrow morning?"
"If you break my back now, I'm not too worried about it," Stewart said, laughing.
"We're gonna have fun," Gordon said.
"You're damn right we are," a relieved Stewart said.
Gordon and Stewart were among a group racing the off-road vehicles in January of this year when Stewart suffered a broken back, an injury that kept him on the sidelines for the first eight races of the season.
Tony Stewart wins at Sonoma in June
Stewart returned to score win No. 49 in mid-season at Sonoma, putting the 45-year-old in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. It was short-lived as he and the team were eliminated after the opening round.
Win No. 50 wasn't in the cards.
Stewart found himself a lap down less than 70 laps into the race at Homestead. Gains were made, some were lost. The deficit grew to two laps in the second half of the race.
Cautions provided options. Stay out and take the wave around or pit and pass up the dwindling opportunities to possibly gain track position. Gambles taken didn't pay off.
"We always take chances and we took a chance when we made the 60-lap run and tried to get a lap back that way, hoped the caution would come out," Stewart said. "We lost that lap and then the caution came out right after that cycle … just too little too late."
Jimmie Johnson gives Tony Stewart his helmet
Crew chief Mike Bugarewicz called it "a great honor" to head up the No. 14 team in Stewart's final season.
"I didn't deserve that as a rookie," Bugarewicz said. "We made the best out of it. We had fun; that's what he wanted to do. I think he's ready to go on and do the next chapter in his life and I'm just so thankful to learn a lot from him and have that opportunity."
It might have been 22nd, but Stewart enjoyed the send-off just the same.
"I had fun racing with the guys," he said. "We were cutting up and laughing and joking all day. … I didn't run into anybody and nobody ran into me.
"Nobody's mad at me and I'm not mad at anybody."