Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – For those that ever watched him race; saw him win and win and win; watched him hoist NASCAR’s cherished Cup Series championship trophy, again and again and again – Tony Stewart’s place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame certainly seemed an inevitability.
And on Friday evening, Stewart, 48, will be enshrined with a group of the sport’s highest achievers in the NASCAR Hall of Fame – joining his former team owner Joe Gibbs and former teammate Bobby Labonte along with legendary crew chief Waddell Wilson and the late, multi-talented Buddy Baker.
Perhaps fittingly this Class of 2020 is one of the most diverse representations in the sport – including a team owner, championship drivers, a heralded crew chief and driver-turned-broadcaster extraordinaire.
For all his career, Stewart has proven to be among the most diversely talented competitors – winning in every form of racing, in whatever kind of car he drove.
Stewart dazzled fans and impressed fellow competitors in a three-time NASCAR Cup championship driving career (2002, 2005, 2011). He is the only driver in history to have won both a premier NASCAR Cup Series title and an IndyCar championship (1997). And Stewart is also the only driver to have won a NASCAR championship under the longstanding former points system (2002, 2005) and the new playoff system (2011).
His 2011 NASCAR Cup Series title came as both driver and team owner. And he added another owner’s trophy in 2014 when his Stewart-Haas Racing team earned the Cup championship with driver Kevin Harvick.
“Tony’s career, I look at on paper and he’s my true hero as far as what he’s been able to do,” fellow inductee Labonte said of his former teammate.
After becoming the first driver to earn all three of USAC’s top championships – in Midgets, Silver Crown and Sprint Cars – then taking the IndyCar title in 1997, Stewart was ready and primed to give NASCAR a real go.
Although he had plenty of credibility and a long resume already – Stewart actually began his Cup career after only 36 sporadic starts over three seasons in the Xfinity Series; some of that time overlapping with his IndyCar schedule. The open-wheel master did not win a race in a stock car while learning the new craft in the Xfinity Series – although he had a pair of runner-up finishes at Rockingham, N.C. and New Hampshire in 1998.
His natural talent and ability to learn quickly, however, provided all the promise and confidence Joe Gibbs needed to give Stewart a shot in NASCAR’s big leagues. Stewart made his Cup Series debut in 1999. And never disappointed.
He earned 15 top-10 finishes in his first 24 Cup races and then put an exclamation point on that first-year effort with a win at Richmond, Va. in only his 25th start – leading a dominating 333 of the race’s 400 laps. With the incredible effort, he became the first Cup Series rookie to win a race since Davey Allison more than a decade (1987) earlier.
He answered his maiden win with back-to-back victories at races at Phoenix Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway that November to close out the stunning rookie campaign. He became the first Cup Series rookie to win three races – a top-mark he and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (2002) still share today.
The next season, 2000, going door-to-door with other NASCAR Hall of Famers such as seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett, Stewart went on to win a career-high single-season total of six races as his Joe Gibbs teammate and fellow 2020 Hall of Fame inductee Labonte won the Cup title.
Two years later – in 2002 – Stewart was hoisting his first Cup championship trophy and added another in 2005. He had won 24 Cup Series races in just those first six seasons.
It was a time of great success and happiness for Stewart, who today readily recognizes how special it is for him to be inducted right alongside his former team owner (Gibbs), teammate (Labonte) and former Xfinity Series crew chief (Wilson). He even attended the Buck Baker Driving School and recalls having Buddy Baker on-site during his beginnings in a stock car – so this year’s class feels particularly familiar and esteemed to him.
As with another NASCAR Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon, Stewart’s presence and success in NASCAR helped people look at the sport differently. And it opened up a broad spectrum of career possibilities for drivers. From off-road racer Jimmie Johnson to fellow USAC driver Kasey Kahne, who soon became stars as well, Stewart trailblazed an unexpected opportunity.
“It was such an honor, from where I come from, racing with him,” said the seven-time champion Johnson.
“Finding drivers that had a non-traditional route to NASCAR, those guys were a notch up for me. I can recall going and watching Tony race a midget at Ventura (Raceway). I was probably 16 or 17 years old, so it goes way back knowing who he was and watching his career in IndyCar. And then to go toe-to-toe with him was a huge honor.”
Johnson also acknowledged the honor of racing Stewart was simultaneously one of the biggest championship challenges he faced in his own decorated career.
“At times I knew I could frustrate him and use that to my advantage,” Johnson said with a slight laugh. “But the bulk of the time, I knew I had to be on my game. I mean the guy’s tenacious. If you left the slightest opening, he was going to take it.
“I just respected that and enjoyed it. I knew in the day, when that orange hood was coming, plus I had the [competing sponsor] pressure of Lowe’s versus Home Depot. I knew when that orange hood was coming, I was fighting for my life.”
The harder they raced, the closer they actually became as friends. Their sponsors were direct competitors and Johnson and Stewart were deciding Cup Series titles year after year after year. But the respect they gained – on and off-track – has been life-lasting.
“We were expected to be such fierce rivals that we joked about it and kinda formed a friendship off of it,” Johnson said.
“On my side, I just always felt when we would have a few beers and have a chance to connect. He really valued my opinion and being a young guy new to the sport trying to find my way, to have somebody really listen was new for me and really special to me in ways. This is Tony Stewart and he’s really listening to me. So, for me, maybe that was the start of it.”
As the seasons went on, Stewart developed a reputation similar to his racing idol, the legendary A.J. Foyt. He was uber-talented, but also no-nonsense on-track. And highly spirited. He left nothing on the table, in regard to his feelings. Emotion was as much a part of Stewart’s at-track presence as was his great talent to wheel any type of car to victory.
At times, it appeared any perceived conflict or underestimation seemed to energize Stewart. This champion “underdog” was perhaps most threatening in that he was a master of surpassing expectation. It was something he learned early in his life, overcoming and exceeding a lot of expectation as he made his way up the ranks in the USAC classes. He earned a shot in racing’s big-time because of his immense talent, never because of a fat family checkbook.
And that grit and gumption was on full display in his incredible 2011 championship run.
After being winless the entire 26-race regular season, Stewart reeled off victories in the first two Playoff races at Chicago and New Hampshire – his third season in the dual role of driver and team owner. A month later, he won back-to-back races at Martinsville, Va. and Texas Motor Speedway and showed up at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship race a mere three points behind Carl Edwards.
The two had fun in the week leading up to the championship finale dropping verbal barbs like a pair of boxers before the championship fight. And as compelling a storyline as they created leading into the race, the race itself proved to be unlike no NASCAR title events previously or since.
Twice the race was stopped for rain and Stewart’s No. 14 Ford had to overcome a couple of mechanical issues that arose. But he took the lead on the final restart and held point for 36 laps, beating Edwards to the line by 1.306 seconds.
The one-two result meant the two drivers were technically tied in points. However, Stewart had won five races and Edwards had only one trophy meaning the title went to Stewart by tiebreaker. The only time in NASCAR history the points standings finished in a tie.
That dramatic and compelling championship run remains the most memorable for Stewart.
“So many things happened that night,” Stewart said, recalling the challenges.
“All the things that happened were setbacks and to be able to come back from that. That’s definitely the highlight for me.”
Stewart closed his Cup driving career out in 2016 in a fitting manner – earning a win in his last season with a last-lap pass on the Sonoma (Calif.) road course. He finished with 49 victories and 308 top-10 finishes in 618 starts – a hefty 50 percent of the time he suited up, he finished in the top 10.
Stewart remains a very engaged team owner – having won a title with Harvick. And fittingly, his team is perpetually championship-eligible, challenging for NASCAR trophies while its namesake continues to suit up in short tracks across the country – finishing his driving career right where he started it.
But with a whole lot of success in between.
“Not many people are still doing what they love to do and getting inducted in the Hall of Fame at the same time,” Stewart acknowledged.
But Tony Stewart is. And he did it his way.