2016 NASCAR SPRINT CUP
Tony Stewart never wanted to drive
stock cars for a living. All he fancied
growing up, and then excelling in USAC
racing, was to win the Indianapolis 500.
But after 23 Indy Racing League
starts in three years, his career
veered south because Joe Gibbs paid
attention and nobody in the IRL was
smart enough to invest in the future.
So Smoke became a three-time
NASCAR champion and two-time
Brickyard 400 winner, but open-wheel
fans will always wonder what might
have been if the USAC star had
stayed in IndyCar.
“I think that Tony would have
won a lot of races,” offers four-time
Indianapolis 500-winner A.J. Foyt.
As it was, Stewart only won three
times in the IRL, despite leading
1,472 laps for John Menard’s team,
and got shut out at Indy, with a best
finish of fifth in 1997.
But even though the IRL’s depth
of competition paled in comparison
to CART’s, it was obvious that this kid
from Indiana packed plenty of talent. He
led all those laps and won the 1997 IRL
title running on Goodyears when it was
obvious Firestones were clearly superior.
And you have to think that once
Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi
crossed the picket line, one of them
would have snapped up Stewart
(he ran Indy for Chip in 2001).
All his IndyCar starts were on ovals,
so it would have been interesting to
see him on street circuits and road
courses in a combined series. But you
can bet he’d have been a favorite on
any oval and, like friend and mentor
Foyt, his face would be on the
Borg-Warner Trophy more than once.
(ABOVE) Tony Stewart returned to the
Indy 500 for a fifth and final time in 2001,
taking sixth for Chip Ganassi Racing.
INDY’S LOST TALENT
(ABOVE LEFT) A
sprint car crash
Stewart’s 2013 with
a badly broken right
leg. (LEFT) Sprints,
midgets, WoO and
more were always
part of his racing life.
“As great as Tony’s been
as a driver, I’m most proud
of what he’s given back to
Champions last year and Tony Stewart
Racing took another WoO crown with
Donny Schatz in 2015.
For the past couple winters, Tony has
gone to Tulsa to help Hahn and Lanny
Edwards in preparing and caring for the
Chili Bowl’s racy surface. He runs the grader
and water truck in addition to jumping on
a three-wheeler to push start a disabled
car or get a flipped car back on its wheels.
“When he first called and said he
wanted to come help with track
maintenance, I laughed and thought to
myself, ‘Sure, typical NASCAR star, he’ll
show up, showboat and pose for pictures,’”
says Hahn. “But he’s really passionate
about helping and learning and he’s got a
notebook that he fills up every year and he
stays ’til 2 A.M. if we need him.”
Adds papa Stewart: “Earl Baltes turned
down bigger offers for Eldora than Tony’s,
but he wanted him to have it because he
knew he’d take care of it.”
Whether it’s fielding teams, saving a
series, improving a track, or giving a
dying old racer a free place to live,
Stewart and racing are a 24/7
partnership. He’s made millions, but he’s
spread his wealth among his family.
“A couple years ago I gave him an
award that said he’d done more for
open-wheel racing in the past 20 years
than anyone else,” declares Hahn. “Tony
is one of the few people in racing who
keeps making it better.”
Nelson is proud of his son’s
accomplishments, but says: “As great as
Tony’s been as a driver, I’m most proud
of what he’s given back to the sport.”
But just because he’s a full-time
owner/promoter/track super, it doesn’t
mean he’s putting away his helmet come
Nov. 20. He’ll be 45 years old but, by
A.J. and Mario standards, embarking
on the last 10 years of his career.
“I want to run The Little 500 and the
Belleville Nationals for sure,” he said last
January at the Chili Bowl. “Just because
I’m no longer in NASCAR doesn’t mean I’m
quitting. I’ve still got some racing to do.”
Tony Stewart, along
with Dale Earnhardt
Jr. and Jeff Gordon,
was a go-to pitchman
at the height of
ratings boom. His
wry delivery gave
Burger King to Old
Spice some edge.
He also appeared
as his cartoon self
in “The Cleveland
TONY ON THE TV