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Tony Stewart says drag racing career is ‘where my heart is’ as he enters NHRA

Tony Stewart drag racing

Oct 16, 2022; Ennis, TX, USA; NHRA team owner Tony Stewart during the Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Before starting his new drag racing career, Tony Stewart usually has let guys with families hit the runway first following NASCAR races. The Hall of Fame driver who’s now a team owner and part-time television commentator figures it helps them get home and see their kids before bedtime.

It’s a noble gesture, for sure - one he dumped on the tarmac this week.

“I’m getting to the airport first and getting out of there,” Stewart said. “I got bigger fish to fry.”

More accurate: a new career path to start.

The 51-year-old Stewart is embarking on his first season as a full-time NHRA driver, and he’s all in. He will race a Top Alcohol dragster for McPhillips Racing when the season begins next week with the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

“I’m here; it’s where my heart is,” he said.

For Stewart, it’s the latest - and arguably most challenging - lane change for a guy who’s dedicated his life to motorsports. The three-time NASCAR champion also has titles in IndyCar and USAC as well as a fourth in NASCAR as co-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing. Most recently, he claimed the inaugural Superstar Racing Experience title, a summer stock car series he founded in 2021.

“Everything that I did in motorsports pretty much was all in the same bubble, even dirt-track racing, sports-car racing, NASCAR, IndyCar,” Stewart said. “NHRA is off on its own island.”

He calls it “Fantasy Island,” not that surprising considering he met his wife, NHRA Top Fuel dragster Leah Pruett, at an event in 2020. They got engaged in March 2021 and were married later that year.

Now, Pruett is driving her second season for Tony Stewart Racing. Three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan also drives for TSR.

Stewart, though, is racing in a lower class. And he doesn’t see himself moving up anytime soon, if at all.

“I’m not ready for it,” he said. “I’ve driven a Top Fuel car 16 runs and every run I make in it, the more I realize that I am not ready to drive a Top Fuel dragster, and I don’t belong in one right now.

“It’s fine to test with it. But those cars are so fast that my brain is so far behind the car that if something happens, I don’t know that I could catch it or be ready for it.”

He has another reason to avoid making the jump.

“The last thing I want to do is have to race against my wife because I like my side of the bed every night,” he quipped.

Stewart made his NHRA Top Alcohol debut in October at the Nevada Nationals, where he advanced to the finals and finished second by .0002 of a second. Stewart’s 271.57 mph pass came up 1 inch short of the victory.

Madison Payne, a college student at Texas Christian University and a third-generation drag racer, edged Stewart in the quarter mile.

“It was good for the sport because Tony is such a big name,” Payne said on racing podcast “Between The Slicks” in January. “But I was so happy I beat him. It would just be so messed up if anybody came into the sport and won their first race. No, it’s not fair.”

That one race weekend was enough to convince Stewart he wanted more. Now, he’s running for a championship and will race 12 of 14 national events; he will miss the Northwest Nationals in Kent, Washington (July 21-23) and the NHRA Nationals in Topeka, Kansas (Aug. 11-13) because of prior engagements.

He also is scheduled to compete in select regional races, beginning this week with the Baby Gators in Gainesville. The NHRA schedule, combined with NASCAR and SRX duties, have him feeling “like a Thanksgiving plate.”

“I have covered every inch of surface that I can put anything else on,” Stewart said.

He put sprint-car racing on hold, and while he had conversations about returning to NASCAR to run the dirt-track event at Bristol Motor Speedway, he shelved that, too.

“I’m just trying to be an average husband; I’m not even trying to set the bar too high,” he said. “I just want to do the right things and have fun with my wife. … If Leah retired tomorrow, I would still be involved in the same capacity than I am right now.

“It has nothing to do with our relationship. She just helped set the hook on getting me addicted to an NHRA.”