CONCORD, N.C.—The accolades continued for Tony Stewart on Saturday night when the three-time NASCAR Cup and former Indy Racing League champion was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame.
Following a memorable evening at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday—and a party that continued into the wee hours of Saturday morning—Stewart remained in rare form as he was honored by the fourth estate.
While the driver affectionately known as “Smoke” has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the media throughout his three decades behind the wheel, Stewart, 48, was grateful that, ultimately, the connection was beneficial to both.
“All the wins, trophies and all of that, it’s not what really matters--it’s the relationships,” Stewart said to the journalists in attendance. “We all do the same beat-down circuit all year long. You guys have to put up with the same garbage that we do—just a different side of it.
“But we’re all passionate about what we do. That’s why we’re all here. That’s why we all do it. At the end of the day, we might not agree about everything, but I think we always respected each other.”
Stewart was inducted in the NMPA Hall of Fame along with championship crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force and trailblazer Janet Guthrie. But Stewart held court for more than an hour with reporters—and joked after back-to-back inductions that he finally “got to sweep something Kyle Busch hasn’t yet.”
In addition to his Hall of Fame honors, Stewart bantered about his early United States Auto Club days, his relationships along the way, the mementos that meant the most to him on display at the NASCAR Hall and his amazing passion for motorsports, which has led to team, track and series ownership. While he still maintains co-ownership in Stewart-Haas Racing, the former USAC Triple Crown winner is encouraged by the recent growth of open-wheel racing and believes his acknowledgment by the NMPA also is reflected in his accomplishments outside of stock car racing.
“This is much bigger to me than you guys even think it is because it is so much more than NASCAR,” Stewart said. “I’m so much more than NASCAR. I cover so many different aspects of the sport.
“I see the dirt track side of it, obviously. Our series (All Star Circuit of Champions) keeps gaining more momentum. The live-streaming is a huge deal right now. There’s been such a big push with that. Our partnership with Flo Sports is something I’m super excited about, not just what it does for the series but what it does for our competitors, their sponsors, their owners.
“When they can’t go to the race track, to have access and be able to stay in touch with what’s going on and watch their race cars. Their fans, if they can’t travel to a race, they can still watch their favorite driver every week at every race.”
Stewart also sees the benefit in NASCAR drivers such as Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chase Briscoe and J.J. Yeley continuing to race between stock cars and open-wheel competition. The experience ultimately exposes fans to different forms of racing. Stewart also believes that Larson, who won his first Chili Bowl Nationals last month, has the right to express his passion for dirt track racing.
“Just because NASCAR doesn’t like that doesn’t mean they have the right to give him a hard time about it,” Stewart said. “They’ve got to do their part. That’s what that kid is into. They can't condemn him for something that he likes and saying that he likes it. That’s everything that’s wrong with racing if that’s where we’re going with that stuff.
“I know the way he said it, made it sound like NASCAR might get mad, but I don’t know why you would get mad about it. That’s something that has been a goal of his for a long time. It’s kind of like the Dale Earnhardt 500 thing. He didn’t go as long as Dale did without winning the 500, but he was a quarter of a lap away from winning it last year—and that’s how much it meant to him.
“I think that’s why you want someone like Kyle Larson. You want somebody that’s that passionate about something that in most people’s eyes don’t get it like you and I do. (Chili Bowl) meant a ton to him even though he’s racing “something” bigger and higher than that, it’s not in his eyes. It’s equal. And sometimes that meant more than what he’s doing over (in NASCAR) but they don’t have the right to be upset about it by any means.”
Larson’s desire to race non-stop is also quite appealing to Stewart. With Larson’s contract expiring at the end of the 2020 season and Stewart perhaps having a vacancy next season, he would love to bring Yung Money to SHR.
“Of course,” Stewart said. “Everybody wants him on their team. When he said he was looking, I guarantee you every car owner’s ears perked up like it was a dog with a dog whistle. Everybody wants that kid in their race car.”
On Monday, Stewart will start the journey south to Florida where he will once again juggle his open-wheel responsibilities along with NASCAR duties at Daytona International Speedway. With the driver still suffering the aftermath of “Chili Bowl flu” the jury is still out as to whether he’ll wheel his sprint car with the All-Stars this weekend at Volusia Speedway Park.
Regardless of how Stewart feels, it will be tough to keep him on the sidelines.
“It’s still a balancing act,” Stewart said. “I don’t do all the work there, I just organize the people and let the people do the work and they give us all the credit for it. I don’t do anything. I’m just the cheerleader that goes in there, thanks everybody and appreciates the hard work they do for us. The guys in the shop are the ones that do all the hard work.
“I think I’m just a glutton for punishment. The little bit of free time that I have, I keep taking more of that away from myself. But I like what I’m doing. I actually love what I’m doing. I’m passionate about all of it and I can’t imagine doing anything different.”