TALLADEGA, Ala. – Tony Stewart has always had a hot and cold relationship with Talladega Superspeedway. The man who garnered the nickname Smoke when he was much younger, since he’s been in NASCAR has been branded as a bad boy, and early in his career was roundly booed at NASCAR’s biggest oval track.

His antics of going after other drivers, and reporters didn’t sit well with some fans to begin with, and when he was asked during an interview with FHM magazine if there was a place where the fans were the most obnoxious.

He answered “Talladega, it’s in Alabama, enough said.”

The writer left out Stewart talking about how crazy and fanatic those in the infield were.

He held a teleconference to attempt to explain that it was actually a compliment, saying, “it’s like who are the craziest fans.” Fearing it was not enough, later that year for the fall race at Talladega during driver introductions, he wore his firesuit purposely undone so as to show off his new white t-shirt with the printing on it reading “Obnoxious Talladega Driver.”

That seemed to take some of the pressure off him and began to turn Stewart from a black-hatted evil driver into something of a beloved driver. Although he continued to be a front-runner each spring and fall, sometimes coming just short, he turned the boos into cheers.

Despite his success at restrictor plate tracks like Daytona, where he is the second winningest driver all-time behind Dale Earnhardt, he did not experience the same success at Talladega. He only garnered one win.

His one win came in October 2008 after he already announced he would be leaving the organization that brought him to NASCAR, Joe Gibbs Racing, in order to start his own team co-owned with Gene Haas. Even that had some controversy, with Regan Smith actually crossing the finish line ahead of Stewart’s 20. But NASCAR ruled Smith made the pass below the double yellow line through the tri-oval and nullified the result, giving the win to Stewart.

Since that win, Smoke has been just that…smoke. No fire at Talladega…experiencing a few top ten results, but by and large being a non-factor during the races.

He has been notoriously critical of restrictor plate racing and he would know something about the dangers of it, experiencing a couple of the worst wrecks that Daytona and Talladega have to offer.

At Daytona in 2001, in the race where Dale Earnhardt lost his life, Tony was running near the front when he was hit and flipped into the air, barrel rolling and then landing on his teammate Bobby Labonte’s racer.

In 2014’s fall race, Tony running out front, saw Michael Waltrip running on the low side and gaining ground. When Tony attempted to block, he misjudged and came across Waltrip’s nose causing him to crash while in the process turning over on top of two other cars.

Stewart, the three-time Cup champion that he is, is one of the beloved elder figures in NASCAR and has turned one of the most popular figures in the Cup Series.

He will end his career with likely 49 career Cup win unless he claims a win at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix or Homestead-Miami, which is not totally out of the question. Stewart  has claimed 15 pole positions, 309 top ten results and the three championships, the only driver to claim a Winston Cup, Nextel Cup and Sprint Cup trophy, in other words, winning a title under each of the title sponsors of the series since “the modern era” began in 1972.

He is a sure-fire hall-of-famer with the three Cup titles, an IndyCar title, along with Rookie of the Year titles in Indy 500, Rookie of the Year in 1996, and an IndyCar Series title in 1997. Moving to NASCAR full-time in 1998, he claimed Cup Series Rookie honors in 1999, and Cup titles in 2001, 2005 and 2011.

He was also a USAC Triple Crown Winner in 1995 winning all three of the USAC open wheel series that year, the first driver to ever win them all in the same season. He is the answer the trivia question of who was the final IROC Series champion, claiming that title in 2006, among many more honors.

Tony Stewart has said he will not be absent and said he will be much more involved in his Cup Series organization, Stewart-Haas Racing, now that he will be out of the car for 2017 and beyond. Since the team is also beginning an Xfinity Series operation, while at the same time moving from Chevrolet to Ford, he also said he hopes to accompany Gene Haas to some Formula 1 races as a guest of his Haas F1 Team and run some dirt track races.

Tony Stewart, love him or hate him, will be missed on the track in NASCAR.

Steve West for SylacaugaNews.com | © 2016, SylacaugaNews.com/Marble City Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Brannon is a former news and sports anchor from Mobile, Ala. and serves as Director of Business Development, Manager of Digital Projects and Strategy, and Managing Editor of SylacaugaNews.com.