November 20, 2016. A date I’ve been dreading since Tony Stewart announced 2016 would be his last season driving a NASCAR Cup Series racecar. After that race, at Homestead Miami Speedway, my favorite driver would be done. Sure, I’ll see him race again, on some dirt track in the middle of nowhere, USA, but the spotlights were being turned off.
You see, 2016 was a tough year for James the fan. First, Calvin Johnson, my favorite football player, retired. Then, Kobe Bryant, my favorite NBA player, went out in spectacular fashion in his last game, a thrilling 60 point performance. The last out the door? Smoke. And this one hurt the most. Just like that, my youth was forever sealed in the past.
I spent most of 2016 cherishing the final moments of my favorite stars. I went to two Laker games and even dragged my pregnant wife to a dirt track two hours from home. Just to tell Tony how much I appreciated his career. He wasn’t even racing. Just being the boss for his All-Star Circuit of Champions Sprint Car Show.
This past August I had one last chance to see Smoke race his Cup car at Michigan. I was fixated on the 14 car most of the day, especially when the final laps approached. But that day belonged to Kyle Larson, taking his first career Cup win. You could call it a transitional moment.
As much as I wanted to fight it off, Father Time always wins. As the sun set on Smoke’s career, the inferno that is Kyle Larson is just getting started. I’ve always admired Larson’s talent. Ever since I first saw him race he’s been my “number two” driver. Everyone asks me, “who’s your driver now that Tony is gone?” I could never get myself to say that Larson was it. I’d say how I like Chase or Blaney. “The young guys are excellent!” But I always drifted back to Larson.
As I think back to Smoke’s last race at Homestead I remember who I was cheering for as the laps wound down. It was Larson. The Daytona 500, as he ran out of gas. I was pulling for Larson. And on Sunday at Phoenix, I jumped off my chair when Larson took it sideways into turn one, trying to get that first win of the season. That childlike excitement, that’s the feeling I’ve been missing since November 20, 2016.