Smoke Stories: Friends, foes remember Tony Stewart
FORT WORTH, Texas -- A lot happened on Nov. 15, 1992.
Alan Kulwicki won his only Winston Cup title by 10 points over Bill Elliott, who won the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
On the starting grid for the last time was Richard Petty, starting in his 1,184th Cup race, while a mustached kid named Jeff Gordon started his first.
Also on pit road was Tony Stewart, a 21-year-old sprint car driver from Columbus, Indiana, attending his first NASCAR race. Instead of a firesuit, he wore a $2,000 suit with a tie.
“I went from having a little bit of money from what I’d saved driving a race car to being a broke race car driver again, because I chose to try and impress people,” Stewart said. “I thought like I was wasting my time being down there, I thought there was no way I was going to get an opportunity to come do this.”
Twenty-four years later, the driver known as “Smoke” is ending an 18-year Sprint Cup career. Here are stories from some of the men Tony Stewart raced, fought and inspired.
In his Sprint Cup career, Stewart raced for two people. Joe Gibbs and himself.
Stewart caught the attention of Gibbs, a NASCAR owner since 1992, after two years of racing in the Xfinity and Indy Racing League, where he won the 1997 title for John Menard.
“A lot of people were talking about him,” says Gibbs. “He had a contract. So it was a long process of going through that, trying to work it out with the owners that had him at that point, then to work it out with him.”
When Gibbs sat down with Stewart for the first time, the driver known for his confidence and brashness had a “shocker” for the former NFL coach.
“He said, ‘I want to tell you something right now, I’m not ready for Cup ... I want to run Xfinity for at least a year, maybe two years,’” Gibbs recalled. “I think he had a real strong feeling about himself. I think that’s one thing I remembered right off the bat, he said, ‘Hey, I’m not ready.’”
After another season of splitting time between Xfinity and the IRL, Stewart made the jump to Cup. Seven years after his trip to Atlanta, Stewart started the 1999 Daytona 500.
On Sept. 11, 1999, Stewart won his first of 49 Sprint Cup races at Richmond International Raceway.
In his 10 Sprint Cup seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, 10 drivers had the distinction of calling Stewart a teammate for at least one race.
Kyle Busch was one of the last.
In 2008, Busch landed at JGR in the No. 18 that had been driven by Bobby Labonte and J.J. Yeley.
“Tony and I, when I first started Cup racing, didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye very well,” says Busch. “When we became teammates it was the best thing for us. We got a good chance to sit down talk to each other each and every week at our team meetings to understand one another. He was a huge part of the success at Joe Gibbs Racing that year and we got a good chance at learning each other’s personalities and seeing how similar we are.”
Busch’s favorite memory of being in the same stable as Stewart is their first race together in the Daytona 500. Stewart and Busch were leading on the final restart with three laps to go, attempting to fend off the Team Penske duo of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.
“We stayed together and knew to work together and were on each other’s bumpers all day long and essentially that is probably what cost us the victory,” Busch said. “We didn’t want to vary from one another at all. I stayed with him and the outside blew our doors off at the end with Ryan Newman winning the race.”
In Stewart’s 49 Sprint Cup wins, four of them at Daytona, none were the Daytona 500.
Stewart has a tendency to complain. Or at least exaggerate.
Prior to the start of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Stewart famously said he was a waste of space in the playoff after not winning a race all season.
Stewart was still complaining right before the start of the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
“I always give him a hard time about this one specifically,” Trevor Bayne said. “We were on pit road with Leonard Wood, myself and Tony standing there talking. He is telling us how awful his race car is. He is going on and on, kind of like Sonoma earlier this year telling me how bad it is.
“Then he goes out and wins the race.”
Stewart would win four more races, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, to clinch his final Sprint Cup title in a historic duel with Carl Edwards.
“California keeps coming to my mind,” Joey Logano says when asked for a favorite Stewart story. “That’s probably not the best memory.”
Logano and the rest of the Texas Motor Speedway media center break into laughter.
“At least we can laugh about it now,” Logano says.
The list of drivers who have been on the receiving end of Stewart’s wrath is long and distinguished.
A move by Logano on a late restart resulted in a pit road scuffle, a water bottle being thrown by Logano and a profanity laced TV interview by Stewart.
“If you were to say there’s one thing that makes Tony Stewart great, it’s the passion that he has, that he brings to the game,” says Logano, who succeeded Stewart in the JGR No. 20 in 2009.
Even with their disagreements, Logano has learned a lot in his nine years of competing against Stewart.
“He knows when to not beat up his car, he knows when to not make other drivers mad and when to just log some laps, and then he also knows that when it’s game time he becomes one of the most fierce competitors out there,” Logano said. “I think that’s kind of a cool trait that I’ve learned a lot from just following him and watching him.”
Stewart’s 616th Sprint Cup start was shortened by rain.
After 293 laps in the AAA Texas 500, Stewart was 31st, five laps down and two races away from his NASCAR retirement.
Stewart walked from pit road into the garage and made a beeline for the gap between two haulers. Alone in the middle of the post-race chaos, watching Stewart walk away like a western anti-hero, stood a fan.
A stocky man with frizzy red hair, he wore a blue Chase Elliott shirt and an Elliott hat that sat crooked on his head.
“Thank you, Tony!” he called out.
Without slowing down, Stewart turned and waved before turning right and disappearing around the front of a hauler.
“That’s all I really wanted to see,” said the fan, to no one and everyone.