Tony Stewart will quit racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the end of the 2016 season, the three-time Cup champion confirmed on Wednesday.
“This is a moment every driver eventually comes to terms with, and I know this is the right decision for me,” said Stewart, who as well as being one of the most successful and well-known drivers in the sport is also the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas.
"2016 will be my last year in a Sprint Cup car, but it's not my last year in NASCAR," he pointed out, confirming that he will stay on his ownership role with SHR once he steps out of the race car.
"I love this sport and I love being a part of it, and instead of seeing me in a firesuit on Sundays, you'll see me in a pair of jeans, and maybe even a pair of khakis.
"I plan to make the most of my final year as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series," he added. "I'm very comfortable with this decision and what the future holds for me and Stewart-Haas Racing."
Stewart also answered the question of who would be taking over the #14 car once he ends his 17-year NASCAR racing career, with the role going to Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer is currently driving with Michael Waltrip Racing, but that team will cease competition at the end of the season. Bowyer is expected to spend the interim season before taking over from Stewart racing for HScott Motorsports in equipment supplied to the team by SHR.
“Today is an incredible opportunity and I'm proud and excited to take over the #14 in 2017,” said Bowyer, who won the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series title. “Whether it's racing him on Sunday or watching my dirt late model teams race at his famed Eldora Speedway, Tony and I share the same passion for racing.
"That makes this opportunity a perfect fit for me. I appreciate everything he's done for me and the sport of auto racing. These are big shoes to fill, but boy am I ever looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a champion's ride, and have Tony there with me along the way."
Stewart said that the transition year would see Bowyer integrated into the team "to ensure that when Clint Bowyer takes over the #14 in 2017, he has everything he needs to win races and contend for the championship."
Stewart's co-owner in SHR since 2009, Gene Haas, has had a very busy week. Just 26 hours earlier the billionaire machine tools businessman was in the same media centre in Kannapolis, North Carolina unveiling his selection of Romain Grosjean as lead driver for his new Haas F1 Team.
"Tony Stewart has been a game-changer for Stewart-Haas Racing and for motorsports," Haas said. "I always had an incredible amount of respect for what he could do with a racecar, any race car, as he's been successful in everything he's ever driven.
"In getting to know Tony Stewart the businessman, I found a very smart person with excellent people skills. He's extremely valuable to our race team and a strong voice in our sport.
"His passion for motorsports is unmatched, and I'm proud that his future outside of the #14 Chevrolet remains with Stewart-Haas Racing."
Chevrolet itself paid tribute to Stewart after the announcement was made public, with the manufacturer's US vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports Jim Campbell noting that "Stewart has been a key member of our racing family for nearly 20 years. The majority of his race wins and championships—regardless of series—have been with our brands.
"Not only is he a championship-winning driver and team owner, he is an entrepreneur and gives back to numerous charities. Through his Tony Stewart Foundation, he pours his heart into causes that support children, animals and others in need of assistance.
"We value our long-standing partnership with Tony and look forward to joining his fans in celebrating his final season as a full-time driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series."
SHR will now have to work hard to keep the collection of sponsors who have been attracted to the team and to Stewart's car in particular by the charismatic personality of the owner-driver. Among the primary sponsors on the #14 at present are Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Rush Truck Centers, Code 3 Associates, Coca-Cola, Jimmy Johns and Haas Automation.
"I have been blessed with fantastic partners throughout my racing career, and I take a lot of pride in the lifelong friendships formed and the great business successes we've been a part of," Stewart said.
"I never would've accomplished all that I've achieved in racing if it weren't for the support of corporate America. They helped a kid from Columbus, Indiana, reach his dreams and I'll be forever grateful."
Stewart won his most recent NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in 2011 on a tie-breaker after tying on points with Carl Edwards. However he was only ninth the following season, and his 2013 campaign was curtailed when he broke his leg in a regional sprint car race in August which forced him to sit out the rest of the season.
There was further tragedy in 2014 when Stewart was involved in another regional sprint car accident which resulted in the death of a young competitor. Although cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the New York state district attorney and police investigation, Stewart still faces a civil lawsuit from the Ward family and this week lost a bid to have the case taken to federal jurisdiction.
Stewart's 2015 has been one of his weakest since he moved to NASCAR from the IndyCar Series, where he was champion in 1997. He has finished in the top ten on just two occasions in the 28 races this season with a best finish of sixth place at Bristol, and his best starting position was third at Watkins Glen. Currently Stewart is in 25th place in the championship, the lowest of the four SHR drivers in this year's competition with Kurt Busch currently in seventh, Kevin Harvick 15th and Danica Patrick 24th.
Furniture Row Racing to switch to Toyota, extends Truex
The Furniture Row Racing team is to switch from Chevrolet power to Toyota beginning in 2016.
The single-car team will enter into a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and have Toyota Racing Development (TRD) build engines for the #78 car.
"The track record of Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing speaks for itself. They are both proven winners with an unyielding commitment to raising the performance bar in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series," said Joe Garone, president and general manager of FRR.
"The added resources and technical support that Toyota will provide, along with having a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, definitely increases the growth potential for our team."
Toyota needed to bolster its line-up of teams after confirmation that the two-car Michael Waltrip Racing squad is to cease competition at the end of this season.
Also announced was confirmation that Martin Truex Jr. will remain with the team for another season. Truex is currently performing strongly in the Chase title play-offs and is in ninth place.
"Martin has done a terrific job driving our #78 race car to a victory and into the Chase," said Garone. "He and crew chief Cole Pearn have established an outstanding chemistry. We look forward to having Martin as the Furniture Row Racing driver in 2016 and beyond."
"I am happy to continue in my role with Furniture Row Racing and feel that we've just begun a growth spurt that will take us to a new level," responded Truex, who previously raced with MWR before moving to his current team at the start of 2014.
"I know the folks from Toyota and I am looking forward to being part of their team again. They build fast engines and having a technical alliance with the highly-successful Joe Gibbs Racing is an added bonus to our program. While our primary focus right now is on the Chase, I am eagerly looking forward to what is in store for our Furniture Row Racing team."