That’s when Tony Stewart first witnessed a NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It happened to be Richard Petty’s final race and Jeff Gordon’s first race.
Stewart, an aspiring race car driver at that time, spent the only $2,000 he had on clothes in an effort to “impress people.”
“I went from having a little bit of money from what I saved driving a race car to being a broke race car driver again,” Stewart said. “I was there just to meet people. Even while I was down there, I honestly didn’t think it was even remotely possible [to drive in NASCAR one day]. I felt like I was wasting my time being down there. I thought there was no way I’ll ever get an opportunity to come do this.”
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Fast forward 24 years and Stewart has enjoyed one of the most successful careers a race car driver could imagine. He won an open-wheel championship in the Indy Racing League in 1997, and became a three-time Cup champion in NASCAR with 49 career wins.
Tony Stewart is the only driver to win poles in IndyCar and NASCAR.
He’ll be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame one day alongside the likes Petty and Gordon. Not too shabby for a kid who grew up in a middle class family in a small town outside Indianapolis.
“I’d put him in the A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti category of driver,” said Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s active leader in championships (6) and wins (78). “A guy who can drive anything and win in anything.
“There’s only a few names you put in that category. The fact that he’s won an open-wheel championship and a NASCAR championship … is just mind-blowing.”
There’s no denying what Stewart has meant to the sport, and he’ll make his final NASCAR ride around Texas Motor Speedway Nov. 6 in the AAA Texas 500.
2 Sprint Cups wins at Texas Motor Speedway for Tony Stewart. He won the fall races in 2006 and 2011.
Stewart didn’t run in the spring TMS race while he recovered from back surgery after he was injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident in late January.
But Stewart has returned and, even though he has been knocked out of the championship race, he is hoping to get to 50 career wins. Texas might be the spot.
“Texas and Phoenix [the race after TMS] are the two tracks that are left on the schedule that really mean a lot to me and that I have a history with,” Stewart said. “If I had the luxury to pick, I would pick one of those two to win, but I will take it any place that I can get.”
Texas and Tony
Tony Stewart has always had fondness for TMS, dating to his open-wheel days.
He was the pole-sitter for the first two IndyCar races in the track’s history, and he had the dominant car for much of the inaugural race in 1997. He led a race-high 100 of the 208 laps, but blew a motor going into Turn 1 in the closing laps.
As TMS president Eddie Gossage said, “If Tony doesn’t blow a motor, there would have never been the A.J. Foyt and Arie Luyendyk fight in Victory Lane.”
Stewart finished fifth, 14th and 20th in his three IndyCar races at TMS, and he found much better luck at the track in NASCAR.
Stewart has two wins at TMS, in the fall of 2006 and fall of 2011, and two poles, spring of 2010 and spring of 2014. He still holds the track record for most laps led by a winner in his dominant fall 2006 run, leading 278 laps, and the fastest qualifying speed of 200.111 mph in 2014.
But the fall of 2011 race is the one most fans remember about Stewart’s Texas days.
Stewart and Carl Edwards were in the midst of a close championship race, and Stewart edged Edwards for the win at Texas. That cut Edwards’ points lead to three with two races remaining, and Stewart eventually won the championship by the narrowest of margins.
“If I could have that battle every year, that would be my dream,” Edwards said. “We fought down to the last lap of Homestead. It was awesome. It was fun. Having that battle with Tony and knowing that we made those guys win five of the last 10 races to beat us, that was pretty cool.
“To be able to battle Tony when he was hitting on all cylinders, he’s as tough as he can be, that was fun. … Obviously I was really [upset] we didn’t win. That was the ultimate letdown. But, looking back, we performed. We made them beat us. If we ran that race 10 times, I think Tony would win half of them and I’d win half of them. That’s as good as it gets. Well, that’s almost as good as it gets.”
Sunday marks the 28th Cup race for Stewart at Texas and he has posted an average finish of 14.4. He has finished in the top 10 in almost half of them (13), including six top fives.
But, for folks like Gossage, it’s the whole package that Stewart has brought throughout his career. Gossage mentioned the inaugural IndyCar race and the 2011 Cup race as the two highlights of Stewart’s racing career in Texas.
“Why I point those out are the IndyCar and the Cup car, he’s leading in both,” Gossage said. “That’s hard to do because the cars are as similar as apples and sausages. It didn’t matter what type of car he was in, he was going to be at the front.”
Off the track, Stewart and Gossage have become almost like brothers. Gossage is among the people Stewart has gone to in running Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio.
They also take pleasure in ribbing each other.
The track is giving 30,000 fans a commemorative Stewart bobblehead. Gossage joked that he did Stewart a favor by making the bobblehead skinny.
“I say it was because he was on a tight budget,” Stewart said, grinning.
200.111 Stewart’s TMS record speed for a lap in Sprint Cup qualifying, set in the fall of 2014.
Stewart has asked tracks not to give him farewell gifts in his final season, although it’s a safe bet that Gossage will have something in store. After all, he he gave Jeff Gordon two Shetland ponies last year.
The price of ponies, Gossage said, has gone up in the past year.
“Maybe miniature donkeys,” Gossage said, laughing. “But Tony did say he didn’t want any speedway to give him retirement gifts. I, of course, heard a lonely, desperate cry for attention. So we’ll be getting him something. I think he’ll like it.”
Even though Stewart is calling it quits in NASCAR, he still intends to race. And TMS remains on his list.
Stewart said he will race on TMS’ dirt track race in April.
“That’s one of the two I’ve got confirmed on my schedule so far,” Stewart said. “I’m excited about it. It’s what I wanted to do anyway. I wanted to get back to dirt track racing and you know they have a beautiful track. I can’t wait to get over there.”
Tony Stewart’s legacy should be that of a driver who could win in any car, as Jimmie Johnson said.
A guy who won championships on the open-wheel circuit and in NASCAR. The man fans loved to call “Smoke,” a brash and outspoken driver whose likability grew because he stayed the same. Heck, TMS built the “Tony Stewart” bridge between Turns 1 and 2 because he complained of traffic making him late to a driver’s meeting one year.
Stewart has never been interested in being politically correct, has never been afraid to get into it with the media and has even gone after fellow drivers.
But Stewart’s legacy became complicated in August 2014. He was involved in a fatal accident on a dirt track in upstate New York when his car struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr.
Stewart was not criminally charged in the incident and has stated it was an accident. Gossage was among the first people to come to Stewart’s defense, although he knows that it will forever be part of Stewart’s legacy.
“The whole thing is tragic,” Gossage said. “The loss of life is the biggest tragedy of all. I do feel sorry for the Ward family and for the impact it’s had on Tony. It’s eaten at him as it would anybody since it occurred. The gruff, tough, bad boy that the media likes to play up and what he plays up to at times is just the public character.
“He’s tough as nails in a race car, but it’s just been a devastating thing on him as it would be for anybody. I hate it. We can talk about Tony’s championships and Hall of Fame career, all kinds of fun stories, but at the end of the day, people are going to remember that about Tony Stewart and that’s sad.
“There’s nothing but tragedy on this thing all the way around.”
It has become an unfortunate part of Stewart’s story, but it has also seemed to help him gain more perspective. The only thing really missing from Stewart’s racing résumé is a Daytona 500 win.
The back injury kept Stewart out of what should have been his final Daytona 500, but he’s at peace with it all.
“Just like everybody else’s lives, it doesn’t all run smooth and it doesn’t all run perfect,” Stewart said. “But that was the cards I was dealt. I missed a bunch of key races I was looking forward to, but that’s part of life. It wasn’t the end of the world.”
Stewart has raised more than $1.7 million for the Texas chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities through his annual event called the “Smoke Show,” which began in 2008. This year’s event in early October raised more than $119,000.
Stewart also does charitable causes behind the scenes.
All in all, Stewart seems content with his legacy as well as those closest to him.
“The way I look at it, Tony has nothing else to prove,” said his dad, Nelson Stewart. “He’s been there, done that, and has the T-shirt to prove it. I made him promise me years ago that, when it came to the point where he wasn’t having fun doing it, he’d quit. He’s not retiring from racing, he’s just retiring from NASCAR.
“Like any other parent, I just want him to be happy. And he does so many good things with his life, he’s been blessed with an opportunity to have the resources to do things for other people. I’m proud of him for that just as much as I’m proud of him for his career.”
For his part, Stewart isn’t overly concerned what fans remember about his career.
“Everybody’s memories are going to be whatever they remember of it and what they experienced,” Stewart said. “To me, I don’t even think about it. It’s not about me. It’s about the whole sport, about the fans. It’s about all of us enjoying what we do here.”
AAA Texas 500
1 p.m., Nov. 6, KXAS/5
2:15 p.m. Gate 4 opens
2:30-3:25 p.m. Trucks practice
4:30-5:35 p.m. Trucks practice
11 a.m. Gate 4 opens
11:30 a.m.-12:55 p.m. Sprint Cup practice
1:30-2:25 p.m. Xfinity practice
2 p.m. Gates 2, 3, 5, 6 open
2:45 p.m. Trucks qualifying
4-5:35 p.m. Xfinity practice
5:45 p.m. Sprint Cup qualifying
7:30 p.m. Trucks series Striping Technology 350 (147 laps, 220.5 miles. TV: FS1; Radio: KFWR/95.9 FM )
9 a.m. Gates 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 open
9:30-10:25 a.m. Sprint Cup practice
10:45 a.m. Xfinity qualifying
12:30-1:20 p.m. Sprint Cup practice
2 p.m. Xfinity O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge (200 laps, 300 miles. TV: KXAS/Ch. 5. Radio: KFWR/95.9 FM)
9 a.m. Gates 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 open; suites and Victory Lane Club open
11 a.m. Jake Owen pre-race show
1 p.m. AAA Texas 500 (334 laps, 501 miles. TV: KXAS/Ch. 5, Radio: KFWR/95.9 FM)