Let’s skip past most of the debate and cut to the chase: By almost every reasonable metric—even being semi-retired in recent years—Tony Stewart can be considered “America’s racer.”
• In 2016, Stewart retired from NASCAR with 49 Cup victories, 11 in Xfinity, and two in Camping World; as a driver, he won three Cup titles and one in the Indy Racing League, a USAC Triple Crown championship, a USAC Midget championship, and an IROC championship; as an open-wheel team owner in various series, he’s fielded 21 championships with seven drivers;
• Stewart won two Brickyard 400s, three NASCAR Shootouts, and a Sprint All-Star race; he was Cup Series and Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, and is already in four major halls of fame: NASCAR, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, National Midget Auto Racing, and Motorsports Hall of Fame of America; he was a three-time winner of both the ESPN Driver of the Year and NASCAR’s Richard Petty Driver of the Year award;
• He owns Eldora (Ohio) and Mason (Ill.) speedways and is part-owner of Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway; he owns the All-Star Race of Champions Series, is co-owner with Ray Evernham of the fledgling Superstar Racing Experience (coming soon), and partners with Gene Haas in Stewart-Haas Racing, twice a Cup championship-winning company; he has at least 100 (and counting) victories in various open-wheel series spanning three decades; soon to come: a possible stab at NHRA Top Fuel drag racing (he’s got his license).
Not much argument there, right? Smoke’s the man!
Most of Stewart’s fame came during 22 years in stock cars, but he actually began winning almost immediately as an Indiana pre-teen in go-karts and quarter-midgets. He seamlessly advanced to USAC midgets, sprint cars, and Silver Crown in the early 1990s, and quickly became a popular star in the fledgling Indy Racing League.
His career path swerved dramatically in 1996. With IndyCar racing in disarray, he ran nine Xfinity races for Harry Ranier, who was formerly the Cup Series car owner for Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, and Davey Allison. Drawn to Stewart’s potential, Ranier and his son, Lorin, recruited him to showcase their return to NASCAR.
Over the next three seasons, Stewart drove 36 Xfinity races for the Raniers, Bobby Labonte, and Joe Gibbs. In 1999, the Raniers sold his contract to Gibbs, who built a Cup team around him to team with Labonte. When the ink dried on Stewart’s first Joe Gibbs Racing contract, his lifestyle turned from Indiana-based open-wheel to Southern-based NASCAR.
Predictably, he was a quick study. His first Cup top-10 was a sixth at Darlington, his fifth start of 1999. His first top-5 was four races later, a fifth at Talladega. Over the next 15 races – including road courses, short tracks, intermediates, and superspeedways – his 12 top-10 finishes brought him into top-5 in points en route a final fourth-place ranking. In the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac, Stewart was the landslide Rookie of the Year over Elliott Sadler
The first of his 49 Cup victories came in just his 25th start, among the quickest by a NASCAR rookie in recent history. It came on September 11, 1999, at the ¾-mile Richmond Raceway with team owner Joe Gibbs and crew chief Greg Zipadelli on the pit box. It’s understandable that the 50-year-old Stewart rolls his eyes and shakes his head when asked what he remembers about that sold-out Saturday night in Richmond.
“Mostly, I remember we led 333 of 400 laps,” he told Autoweek at a recent All-Star Race of Champions. “But I also remember we fell back to eighth or something every time we pitted, and had to be patient and work back to the front. When we got there, the caution came out again, and we pitted and fell back again. It seemed like every time we got toward the front, the caution came out and we lost positions in the pits.”
It became so bad that after one series of stops ESPN announcer Bob Jenkins pointed out, “Stewart’s getting killed on pit stops.” If not for those stumbles, Stewart may well have led all but the first few laps. As it was, the Exide Batteries Select 400 was primarily a four-car show among Stewart, teammate Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and Jeff Burton. (Mark Martin and pole-winner Mike Skinner led briefly, but weren’t serious threats).
“We had the best car that night and probably passed more guys than anybody,” Stewart recalled. “No question, that was a night when everything went right except in the pits. And all those guys we passed coming back toward the front? Jeff Gordon. Dale Jarrett. Bobby Labonte. Rusty Wallace. Dale Earnhardt. Mark Martin. Pretty good racers, all of them. It was tough passing them the first time, but they didn’t have anything for us later on. We just went right on by them.”
Skinner, Stewart, and Gordon swapped the lead seven times in the first half, with Stewart (all but 24 laps) clearly in charge. His pit stops at 56 and 105 maintained his lead, but he lost two positions at 171, three more at 214, and three more at 242. “We had a rookie driver, a rookie team, and a rookie pit crew,” he said of the bad stops. “But still…” He stopped there and slowly shook his head at the wonder of it all.
He wasn’t seriously challenged beyond halfway, even coming forward from 214-256 after yet another slow stop. He went ahead for good at 257, shortly before Gordon and Martin began to fade. His last stop, at 304, kept him comfortably ahead to the finish at lap 400. He finished more than a second ahead of Labonte, with Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, and Kenny Irwin Jr. in the top-5.
Later in the fall, Stewart won back-to-back at Phoenix and Homestead to set a record for rookie victories.
“That was after I’d figured it out and Zippy had figure it out, and we had figured it out together,” he said of the late-season victories. “I don’t think anybody sits down and thinks about when they’re going to win one of these things. You just try your best every time you go out there. That’s what we did that night.”
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