A native of Indiana, Tony Stewart is the only man to have won senior American championships in both open-wheel racing and stock cars. But for the civil war that blighted the former discipline, he may well have remained in Indycars. In the event, Stewart made the switch to NASCAR with aplomb and won the Cup title three times before he retired in 2016.
He was a winner almost from the moment he stepped into a kart when seven years old. National titles in karts, midgets and sprint cars followed and Stewart’s early career culminated in 1995 when he became the first driver in USAC history to win the Silver Crown, sprint car and midgets titles in a single season.
With Champ Cars and the new Indy Racing League splitting North America’s open-wheel racing asunder, Stewart opted to race in the inaugural IRL series in 1996. His Team Menard Lola T95/00-Buick was second in the opening round at Disney World (when beaten by just 0.866 seconds) and Stewart qualified on pole position for his Indianapolis 500 debut. He led the opening 31 laps but retired with engine failure.
He was the undoubted pacesetter in 1997 with his Menard G-Force GF01-Oldsmobile qualifying on pole position four times and beating Stéphan Grégoire by a scant 0.222 seconds to win the Samsonite 200 at Pikes Peak Raceway. Stewart clinched the 1996/97 IndyCar Series at the final round at Las Vegas Speedway. He remained with Menard for 1998 and won twice but was out of luck at Indy again – his engine failing while in the lead once more.
Fulltime NASCAR switch with Joe Gibbs Racing
Stewart had raced in stock car’s second-tier as long ago as 1996 and he made a fulltime switch to NASCAR’s Winston Cup in 1999 when driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s number 20 Pontiac Grand Prix. It was one of the best debut seasons in recent memory. He started the Daytona 500 from the front row, twice qualified on pole position and won three times to clinch the Rookie of the Year award. He also raced in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day – finishing ninth and fourth respectively.
A six-time winner during 2000, he finished as runner-up in NASCAR’s 2001 standings with a first road course victory at Sears Point among his three wins. He again finished both the Indianapolis 500 (sixth for Chip Ganassi) and the 600-mile NASCAR race at Charlotte (third) on the same day. However, that race at Indy was his last open-wheel appearance.
NASCAR Champion for the first time
Regarded at the time as somewhat surly by fans and press alike, 2002 was the year that Stewart translated promise into his first NASCAR Cup title. He outraced Mark Martin to win three times and clinch the title having earned more than $9million in prize money. Gibbs switched from Pontiac to Chevrolet Monte Carlo for the following season and Stewart continued to win races but did not challenge for the title.
He qualified for the inaugural Chase for the Cup in 2004 and was champion for a second time in 2005 thanks to a run of five wins in seven mid-season races. That success included a “home” victory in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and contributed to career-best prize money of $13.5million.
Team owner and third title
After a decade with Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart announced new plans for 2009. He acquired a 50% stake in the previously winless CNC Haas Racing. The team was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing with Stewart behind the wheel of the number 14 Chevy. He entered the 2009 Chase in second position but slipped to sixth in the final standings.
Stewart has also hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. He pushed a photographer at Indianapolis in 2002 and had an altercation with a USAC official six years later. There was another incident with the co-owner of a circuit in Australia where Stewart was making a guest sprint car appearance before the 2011 season. He returned to America after an interview with Australian police and created the right kind of column inches. He won five times during the 10-race Chase to end Jimmie Johnson’s unprecedented dominance of NASCAR’s top division. It was Stewart’s third Cup title and the first for an owner/driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
Three victories during 2012 included coming from 42nd on the grid to win the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. There were also the customary incidents – Stewart throwing his helmet at rival Matt Kenseth after being spun out at Bristol and being involved in the 23-car shunt (the largest accident of the year) at Talladega.
Final seasons as a driver
He won the 2013 FedEx 400 at Dover but that season was curtailed by a broken right leg sustained during a sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway. He returned at the start of 2014 despite his injuries not being fully healed. That was the first winless season of Stewart’s NASCAR career although there was some consolation as a car owner – Kevin Harvick winning the Sprint Cup for Stewart-Haas Racing.
However, Stewart was involved in a tragic incident during a sprint car race at Canandaigua. Rival competitor Kevin Ward jr climbed out of his crashed car and was struck by Stewart’s right rear tyre he passed the accident. Ward was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at hospital.
Stewart announced that 2016 was going to be his last season as a NASCAR driver but he missed the first eight races due to back injuries suffered when he crashed a dune buggy on January 31. He returned to win at Sears Point to end three years without victory. Second at New Hampshire, he qualified for the Chase for the Cup but eventually finish 15th overall in his final season before retiring.
He continues to run Stewart-Haas Racing in conjunction with Formula 1 team own Gene Haas.