As a past champion in Midgets, Sprints, Silver Crown, and the Indy Racing League (1997), Tony Stewart, a self-proclaimed "14-year-old kid in a 27-year-old body," has been touted as the next coming of Jeff Gordon. Now in 1999, Stewart gets his chance in Winston Cup with the second team formed by Joe Gibbs Racing. Our Bob Myers talked candidly with Stewart about his new team, goals, and very high expectations.
CT: Why did you make a career shift to Stock cars after much success in open wheels?
Stewart: In all honesty, I've been interested in Stock cars since day one. NASCAR was always where I wanted to be. I signed a NASCAR Busch Series deal with (car owner) Harry Ranier, but that didn't work too well. About the same time, Tony George was forming the Indy Racing League, and I decided to race there, signing a contract with (car owner) John Menard. All that happened within two weeks (in late 1995). I didn't really care what I was driving. I just wanted it to be competitive.
CT: What happened to the Ranier deal?
Stewart: It wasn't sponsorship, as has been reported. Harry wanted to go to Winston Cup quicker than I did. I didn't want to hold him back. I didn't want to make a move until I felt I was ready. I had worked 17 years of my life to get to that point, and I didn't want to ruin my career with a bad decision.
CT: How and when did you get hooked up with car owner and former NFL Coach Joe Gibbs?
Stewart: He called me in the fall of 1996 and asked if I was happy with my arrangements with Ranier and if I had any plans to make changes. I told him I was pretty happy. During the winter, things changed, and I talked with him again in March 1997. From that point, we started putting a deal together.
CT: Are you an NFL fan?
Stewart: I shouldn't say no, because I'll probably get in trouble. Really, I'm so concerned about racing that I haven't paid a whole lot of attention (to other sports). Being from Indiana, I do try to follow the Indianapolis Colts some. I was more interested in baseball when I was growing up, because I wasn't big enough (he's 5 foot, 9 inches, 160 pounds now) to think of football.
Tony Stewart is determined to make an impact in Winston Cup this year, hopefully separatin
CT: Considering it was your decision to start with Gibbs in the Busch Series, was it wise?
Stewart: I think so, and I don't think it would hurt me to run another year in Busch. I think having Bobby Labonte as my teammate in Winston Cup will help me get through the learning curve a little quicker. That should take some of the question marks out of my mind about what we're doing and how we're doing it.
CT: Are you generally pleased with your experience in Busch last year?
Stewart: Oh, yeah, I don't think I'd trade it for anything. The Busch Series is very tough in itself, and you're racing with Winston Cup drivers on many weekends. What I learned definitely will help in Winston Cup.
CT: Last season, you had five top fives, including Seconds at Rockingham and New Hampshire, in 22 Busch starts and finished 21st in points. Did you have a shot at a win?
Stewart: Yes, I did. At Rockingham I was leading coming off the final turn on the last lap, and Matt Kenseth got by me. I'm not sure we had a chance at Loudon without a yellow. The thing that was exciting about the year was that we ran up front a lot, even though, at the end of the day, the results didn't show up on paper.
CT: In terms of competition, how severe is the jump from Busch to Winston Cup?
Stewart: Well, the competition is going to be a lot tougher in Winston Cup. But racing against Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Jimmy Spencer, and other Winston Cup guys gave me an idea of what to expect. Running with them in Busch gave me hope that I can compete at the highest level.
CT: Do you think familiarity with several Winston Cup tracks from Busch and the IRL will be an asset to you?
Stewart: Definitely. Obviously, you don't have to learn them again. You hear drivers and crewchiefs talk about the first half of the season for a rookie driver as totally different than the second half. That is, I should be better the second time around. Knowing some tracks also will enable me to concentrate more on running the car.