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Tony Stewart: Even 15 wins and a title won’t make me reconsider retirement

Cheez-It 355 At The Glen - Practice

WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 08: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 8, 2014 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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Tony Stewart isn’t anticipating a dream season in his final tour of the Sprint Cup circuit. And if it materializes, the three-time champion isn’t sticking around NASCAR anyway.

The Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner and driver said even the most successful campaign of his 18-season career won’t cause him to reverse course on exiting the No. 14 Chevrolet after the 2016 season.

“The reason I’m retiring is not performance based, but when you go into your last season, you hope you go out on top,” Stewart, who will turn 45 in May, said last week during the preseason Media Tour. “Whether the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL, you want to finish on top. That’s the way every athlete wants to finish. If we went out there and won 15 races and won the championship, it would not make me go, ‘Man, I want to come back next year.’ It’d be like, ‘That’s the way I want to go out. I’ll take that.’

“When (the 2016 season is over), no matter how the year went, it’s done. If it’s a terrible year, I’m not going to say that defined my career. The stats will show what we did over 18 years. I think no matter how the season goes, I’m going to be able to say I had a successful run in the Sprint Cup Series.”

Stewart has 48 victories on NASCAR’s premier circuit but none since Dover International Speedway in June 2013. He broke his right leg two months later and missed the final 15 races of the season. The struggles continued in 2014 when he missed three races after a sprint car he was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a race in upstate New York.

He completed his first full season since 2012 last year but slumped to a career-worst average finish of 24.8 while finishing 28th in the points standings with only three top 10s.

It’s left Stewart conceding he likely won’t match the farewell of Jeff Gordon, who won at Martinsville Speedway last November and raced for the championship round in his final Cup race.

“That was 99 percent of a perfect season,” Stewart said. “I don’t have any grand illusions that I’m going to have that kind of year this year. I would love to, but I’d say off what we’ve done the last two years, it may or may not be in our cards. We’re going to give 100 percent and hopefully (the lower-downforce rules) will help. The main focus is to go out and have fun this last year. If we can win races and have an opportunity, trust me, I’ll be ready for it.”

Despite the measured expectations, he still is aiming at some lofty goals. Stewart will start the season seeking his first Daytona 500 victory in his 18th and final start. He also would like to score his first win in the Southern 500 and a victory at Kentucky Speedway, which would give him a trip to the winner’s circle at every track on the circuit.

“The way our season has been the last couple of years, I just want to see improvement,” he said. “But if we get improvement, I think a small improvement can lead to an opportunity to win races again. I’m not discounting the fact that I think we can win because we definitely have the tools to do that. We just have to put it together. At the same time, if it doesn’t happen it’s not going to be the end of the world.”

Just the end of an illustrious career – regardless of how the last season unfolds.