The first time I encountered Tony Stewart was at a bowling alley in Charlotte, N.C. It was early 2004, and he was the baddest thing on four wheels at the time. He had already won rookie of the year (1999) and a championship (2002) at the Sprint Cup level, and in the four seasons he had spent in stock cars to that point he had visited victory lane to celebrate and the NASCAR hauler to get castigated with roughly equal frequency.

He was so good and so volatile that he drew comparisons to baseball Hall of Famer and legendary crank Ted Williams. Williams was famous for saying that he wanted people to say of him, “there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” There was talk that Smoke, as Stewart has long been known, would build a similar legacy for himself. In between frames, I asked Stewart, who will retire from NASCAR after Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, what he wanted people to say about him. He said: “That guy got up on the wheel, took that thing to the front.”

Through the course of an unprecedented racing career spanning nearly four decades, roughly $130,000,000 in prize money and countless controversies, Stewart sure did that. At NASCAR’s top level, Stewart won 49 races (13th all time) and three championships (tied for fourth with four others). The only hole on his NASCAR resume is that he never won the Daytona 500.

NASCAR will never see another driver like Stewart, as sponsors have accrued so much power that someone who got in as much trouble as he has over the years would never even make it to the Cup level, let alone endure for 17 seasons.

He never reached Williams’ status, at least not in NASCAR. In a strictly NASCAR assessment, Stewart, 45, falls between fifth and 10th all time. But in a ranking of drivers across a wide variety of disciplines, he jumps toward the top, if not all the way there. He has a well-earned reputation for racing anytime, anywhere. At the bowling alley, Stewart’s then-girlfriend assessed his passion for racing this way: “He’d race you to the bathroom.”

But he didn’t just race every kind of car, he won in every kind of car, too. He has earned 12 series championships. He was the first driver to win USAC’s Triple Crown (championships in three completely different cars in one year), and he is the only driver to win an IndyCar championship and a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Nobody will ever win that combination of titles again.

But to look at Stewart’s career only based on trophies and titles is to completely and totally miss why his retirement has generated so much talk since he announced it last year. His legacy will be that he was one of the most alternately loved and loathed drivers in the history of NASCAR. I could write a farewell to Stewart piece filled with nothing but praise of his generosity, and it would be 100 percent true. Or I could write a farewell to Stewart piece filled with nothing but vitriol about what a jerk he has been, and it would be 100 percent true.

Stewart has caused controversy for wrecking drivers, feuding with media and mouthing off about NASCAR officials. In 2011, he took his act international when he was detained by police after an altercation with a track owner in Australia. But Stewart also has given away millions of dollars to charity and committed dozens of acts of unseen generosity. He regularly lends out his plane when someone in racing has a crisis and uses his home in Indiana like a boarding house for young drivers.

Racing has gotten expensive to the point where it’s almost impossible for a driver to move up through racing’s lower levels without a famous last name or a dad with an enormous bank account. Stewart had neither. He came from nothing.

He got his love of racing and his fiery personality from his dad, Nelson Stewart, a shop teacher. Nelson got Tony a go-kart when he was 6 and soon there was a circle in the backyard where Tony turned laps. Nelson named Tony after legendary racer A.J. Foyt (the A stands for Anthony), and Tony grew up idolizing Foyt, then befriended him, then chose No. 14 for his car in honor of him.

Father and son spent summers traveling the Midwest to race. But that became too expensive, and Stewart bounced from team owner’s house to team owner’s house, racing while he could and working dead-end jobs. It wasn’t all bad, though: He told me one of his race team owners required him to play video games because it helped his hand-eye coordination.

He also told me that he didn’t buy his senior high school yearbook because he didn’t have $20 to pay for it. He described driving from his home in Indiana to a race in Wisconsin for his first race with a particular owner. When he got there, he had to mooch money off the owner to buy tear-offs for the face shield of his racing helmet—the rough equivalent of showing up for a rookie league baseball game and borrowing the manager’s glove because you couldn’t afford your own.

Stewart was a pain in the rear end to owners and fellow competitors even then. He arrived on the NASCAR Sprint Cup scene in 1999 during what seem now like NASCAR’s glory days, when drivers were allowed to have, and express, a personality. The black hat fit him perfectly. He seemed, at times, to enjoy wearing it, and the balance between Terrible Tony and Terrific Tony has been endlessly fascinating to watch.

NASCAR will never see another driver like him, as sponsors have accrued so much power that someone who got in as much trouble as Stewart has over the years would never even make it to the Cup level, let alone endure for 17 seasons.

When the end came for Stewart it came very, very badly. On the track, he has been terrible—in terms of average finish, the three worst seasons of his career have been the last three.

He broke his leg in 2013 in a crash in a non-NASCAR race and missed the final 15 NASCAR races. In 2014, he was involved in an incident on a dirt track that killed fellow racer Kevin Ward Jr. A grand jury declined to press charges. Ward’s family has filed a lawsuit against Stewart. Ward’s death left Stewart badly shaken—he has said he’ll never get over it.

Whatever hope Stewart had of writing an epic last chapter in his final season ended before the 2016 season even started. On January 31—three weeks before the season-opening Daytona 500—he crashed a sand car in the desert of California and broke his back. #SmokeWillRise trended on Twitter, but the truth is he never really did. He missed the first eight races of the season, and while he earned a position in NASCAR’s postseason, he was never a factor in it.

His struggles on the track are only part of the story of his retirement. The burden of responsibility Stewart has felt as a veteran driver and team owner in recent seasons has weighed on him. He is expected to speak out on the causes of and solutions to the sport’s ills, but if nobody’s listening, what’s the point? NASCAR is like a big high school, and Stewart doesn’t want to be the class president, he wants to be the guy sitting in the back cracking wise. He’d rather go back to dirt racing, where he has fun, then stay in NASCAR, where he doesn’t. So that’s what he’ll do after Sunday’s race.

Still, as bad as the last few seasons have been, and as happy as Stewart is to be quitting, there were signs that the old Stewart lurked behind the one limping to the end of his career. In one glorious, throwback, who-gives-a-rip-what-anyone-thinks stretch in June, Stewart:

1. cheered on drivers who were fighting on the track after a race,
2. talked about balls in a TV interview
3. knocked former teammate Denny Hamlin out of the way on a last lap pass for the final win of his career (and the most popular of the season in the sport, by far)
4. used Periscope to broadcast himself and his friends shooting fireworks at each other near his home in Indiana.

It’s fitting that one of the last images we will have of Stewart before he fades from public view is literal fireworks, because he lit metaphorical fireworks throughout his long, colorful and controversial career.

In a podcast with NBC’s Nate Ryan a few weeks ago, Stewart was alternatively caustic and charming, dismissive and delightful, just like the good old days. He said he still has a huge fireworks stash, and there will be more epic battles in the not-too-distant future.

Smoke will rise again, indeed.

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