It's been a year since Tony Stewart joined the ranks of Winston Cup, and since his first race, the 28-year-old marvel has proven that the switch from open-wheel to Stock car racing can be made through hard work, patience, and a positive attitude. The '99 Raybestos Rookie of the Year has followed his dream by making the transition from the United States Auto Club (USAC) racing to the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series, and now Winston Cup.
That dream began at age 8, when the Columbus, Indiana, native launched his career in go-karts. "I grew up interested in racing-my father (Nelson) was a race fan, and he introduced me to racing," says Stewart. "Obviously my heart and the first part of my career belong to Indiana and open-wheel racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway."
At age 12, he had garnered his first national title in the IKF (International Kart Federation) Dirt Grand Nationals in Oskloosa, Iowa. By age 19, Stewart had taken eight track championships. From karts, Stewart went to Three-Quarter Midgets, then Silver Crowns-still taking plenty of wins along the way. Eventually, he would make USAC history in 1995 by winning national titles in its three top divisions-Midget, Sprint Car, and Silver Crown-all in one year.
But while he was at the top of the open-wheel game, Stewart had always been interested in joining the likes of NASCAR. "I paid as much attention to the Stock car ranks as I did the open-wheel ranks, so I've been aware of NASCAR ever since I was a child," he says.
Stewart's "Triple Crown" win in 1995 led to an offer by Harry Ranier, a former car owner for Cale Yarborough and Davey Allison, to drive part-time in the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series in 1996. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to secure sponsorship to keep the team going," Stewart says. Also in 1996, Stewart signed a contract with Team Menard to race in the Indy Racing League (IRL). He emerged victorious when he won the '97 IRL championship.
While Stewart was busy in the IRL, Winston Cup team owner Joe Gibbs noticed something special in him and wouldn't let him slip away. "He basically pursued me at all hours of the day and night until we finally came to terms on an agreement early in 1997," Stewart says. He signed with Gibbs to drive the #44 Shell Pontiac in the Busch Series in the hope of advancing to Winston Cup.
Perhaps Stewart could've pushed to enter Winston Cup right away, but he wasn't in a hurry; he wanted to learn as much as he could about stock cars, especially since he had never driven one. "I wanted to get experience," he says. "A race car is a race car in terms of the fact that there are some characteristics that you can apply-but very few in all reality, because open-wheel cars are considerably lighter and have much more horsepower per poundage than stock cars. So, I felt it was better for me to start in the Busch Grand Nationals and learn as much as I could about the stock cars before I moved to Winston Cup."
He gained a wealth of experience early-on-of the five races he ran in late 1997, he secured two top 10s and one top-5 finish
In 1998, Stewart defended his IRL national title while continuing to run in the Busch Series. After competing in 22 Busch races, the team finished off with one Second-Place finish, two Third-Place finishes, and one pole.
Now that he had a taste of Stock car racing in Busch, it was time to make a choice-whether to stay in the series or move up to the Winston Cup ranks. "He (Gibbs) was not going to push me into Winston Cup if I didn't feel like I was ready," Stewart says
He wouldn't choose his path alone, however. "When it became apparent to stay competitive in Winston Cup racing, we needed to think about a second team," Gibbs says. The team thought seriously about whether it needed-or wanted-the addition and how it would be assembled. It the end, the group chose Stewart as the driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac for the '99 season.