Stewart Off and Running In Drag Racing Portion Of Career

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 29 2022

NASCAR Hall of Famer and Indy car star Tony Stewart made his pro drag racing debut on Friday. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

His first season as an NHRA team-owner has driven home this fast fact about Anthony Wayne Stewart. 

“If you follow my career, I don’t have a history of being a very good spectator,” Tony Stewart said during a virtual news conference this week. “I watch and then I get that urge to want to know what it feels like in the driver’s seat.”

Stewart is scratching that itch this weekend at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of the 22nd annual NHRA Nevada Nationals. Stewart made his competitive drag racing debut with a quarter-mile pass of 5.219-seconds at 276.52 mph during Friday’s opening session of Top Alcohol Dragster qualifying. Stewart is driving the TAD car fielded by McPhillips Racing.

Stewart most recently tested with the team owned by Rich Phillips on Sept. 19, the Monday after the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa. That event was Round 1 of the six-race Countdown to the Championship for NHRA’s four professional classes. Stewart is staging in Vegas, penultimate round of the postseason, with the blessing of his wife and Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett. She and three-time NHRA Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan are teammates at Tony Stewart Racing.

“She’s pretty much watched every lap I’ve run in any type of car in NHRA right now,” Stewart said. “She thought it would be OK and a good place to get the first race in, and her confidence gave me the confidence to pull the pin and say, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’^”

Tony Stewart during his days in a NASCAR cockpit. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

While TAD is technically an NHRA Sportsman class, the experience will add to a resume featuring Stewart’s three NASCAR Cup Series championships, his 1997 Indy Racing League title and victories in various IMSA sports car and U.S. Auto Club Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown vehicles.

“In my racing career, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody in this era that’s driven as many different types of race cars that I’ve driven,” said Stewart, a 51-year-old native of Columbus, Ind. “To have the opportunity to do that this weekend is something that is genuinely super-exciting for me.

“I’ve tried to be a student of this sport the last couple of years. Having cars and having teammates and listening to what they do and the friends I’ve made in NHRA…I feel like I have a really good idea in my head of what to expect this weekend. But nothing prepares you better than being out there and getting the opportunity to do it for the first time.”

Stewart said he previously has logged six total laps over two test days _ two laps at Maple Grove Raceway before rain ended that session and four quarter-mile runs at Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota. Stewart also tested a Top Fuel car while attending Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School in Gainesville, Fla.

“Of all the forms of motorsports I’ve been a part of the NHRA and drag racing in general is off on its own island compared to everything else,” said Stewart, aka Smoke Johnson. “Just to see how powerful these cars are and how much speed they can run is incredible.”

Stewart plans to use the weekend as a purely introductory experience. “This is a good weekend to find out how much interest I really have as far as down the road and what I would want to compete it,” Stewart said. “Going to a national event right out of the gate is definitely not the easiest way to do that by any means. But the positive to is it is I’ve got the people that are going to be there as well to rely on. But I don’t know. I don’t know what the future is going hold.

“As far as expectations, I’m looking at it very, very simple right now. I get three qualifying rounds and I get at least the first round of eliminations. If that’s the furthest I make it I’ll get four runs with somebody and I’ll get the full experience of what an NHRA competition is like from the driver’s standpoint.

“I keep having to reel myself in. The competitor in me comes out and wants me to sit there and do the best I can. But I’m not going to be disappointed if for some reason I go out in the first round. Yeah, I’m competitive. And when I get there each round and each session I want to do the best job I can do and I don’t do it half-assessed.

“It’s a first. And every time I ever drove a new car in a new series, there’s that learning curve. NHRA drag racing is so different, drastically different, than anything I’ve ever done. I’m probably at a bigger disadvantage this weekend than I’ve ever been getting into a new car.

“The fact of trying to learn something new and trying to learn how to not necessarily perfect it but to try to do it correctly and accurately and consistently _ that’s what I really like about this challenge. It’s trying to figure out how to do it and do it right. That’s something in my entire career I’ve taken a lot of pride in.”

Stewart said he truly feels like an underdog in a very competitive class. “There’s nothing about this I’m taking for granted,” Stewart said. “But the whole goal of the weekend is to get experience and to figure out how much I enjoy it. And if I fall in love with it like I think I might, who knows what the future can hold?

“I’m too old to race in INDYCAR, I’m retired from NASCAR, Sprint Car racing is getting tougher and tougher and a young man’s game. But drag racing, the reaction times and the aspects of it that are way different from everything else I’ve done are what’s drawing me to this weekend and doing this.”

All that said, Stewart did not rule out the possibility of launching a fulltime NHRA career as owner/driver of…something with four wheels.

“Obviously, I’m heavily invested with our two teams with Matt and Leah and I genuinely love the sport,” Stewart said. “I love the people. They’re awesome people. The pit area, the atmosphere of an NHRA race is unbelievable, it’s unparalleled. It’s something the fans have access to at an NHRA race they can’t get at any other form of motorsports.

“It’s a lot of fun to do something different and to see an atmosphere that really reminds me of what it was like in the heyday of having fun in motorsports. Yeah, if it all goes well, absolutely it could be something I could look forward to possibly doing more down the road.”

Brittany Force recorded the quickest run in each session Friday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, powering to the provisional pole in Top Fuel after the opening sessions of time trials for the 22nd annual NHRA Nevada Nationals.

Robert Hight (Funny Car), Aaron Stanfield (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also emerged as provisional No. 1 qualifiers at the 21st event in the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season and the fifth of six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Looking to sweep both races in Vegas this year and remain in the championship hunt, Force covered the 1,000-foot distance in 3.665-seconds at 337.24 mph in her Flav-R-Pac dragster. That gave her the best runs in each of Friday’s two sessions as she looks to earn her ninth No. 1 qualifier in 2022 and 41st in her career. The 2017 world champion, Brit closed to within 77 points of leader Justin Ashley heading into Saturday’s final qualifying rounds.

“Today’s been awesome. It’s exactly what we’ve been wanting to do,” said Force, of John Force Racing. “We need to grab points where we can because this thing’s going to come down to Pomona (the NHRA Finals in California) and it’s going to come down to just a number of points. We need a long day on race day and we’re starting off well this week. We’re already in a good position with two solid runs. That was our goal and picking up bonus points. So, we’re right on track.”

Mike Salinas was the only other driver in the 3.60s with a lap at 3.697 and 334.73. Defending event winner and four-time/reigning world champ Steve Torrence sits third at 3.705 and 332.51. Ashley is fourth after his best run of 3.716 at 331.85.

Robert Hight capped a dominant Friday for John Force Racing in the nitro categories, posting identical 1,000-foot Funny Car runs of 3.857-seconds in both sessions in his Chevrolet Camaro SS. The point-leader also went 331.77 mph in a bid for his sixth pole of the season and 77th in his career.

A three-time world champ, Hight entered the weekend 10 points ahead of two-time/reigning champ Ron Capps and picked up some much-needed bonus points after suffering a semifinal loss during the 37th annual Texas NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex in Ennis two weekends ago.

“Those two runs, those were huge. We need every point we can get,” Hight said. “The way I look at it, we let Ron Capps back in it in Dallas _ we’re even. Ten points is nothing. Having that week off between races was brutal, but I know (crew chief) Jimmy Prock spent that week and a- half thinking about this race car. He made some changes and I was even surprised we ran so well first session. We ran 3.85-seconds two different ways, and the guys have a handle on this car. Picking up those six points today, that was big for us, and we need to get six more (Saturday).” 

Bob Tasca III went 3.865 at 330.80 to place second, while J.R. Todd is third after his run of 3.870 at 333.33. Capps is fourth after a lap in 3.889-seconds.

Needing a huge weekend to prevent point-leader Erica Enders from clinching her fifth Pro Stock world title, Aaron Stanfield made the quickest quarter-mile run of both qualifying sessions. Stanfield, who is Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, posted a best lap of 6.595-seconds at 207.11 mph in his Janac Brothers Chevrolet Camaro. If that holds, it will give the second-generation standout his fifth pole of the season.

A three-time winner in 2022, Stanfield entered the weekend 165 points behind Enders, who prevailed at Texas Motorplex in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro. The native Texan can wrap up her fifth “Factory Hot Rod” title by advancing one more round than Stanfield this weekend.

“We just want to come out and do a good job. I know the title is a longshot,” Stanfield said. “The Elite team is having a great season and I’m thankful to be a part of it. Heck, I just want to win some races. We’ve got two to go and we’d like to win both of them. This was a good start. We made two good runs and that sets us up for Saturday and Sunday.”

Enders logged the second-quickest run each session, with her 6.597-second lap at 208.26 mph placing her directly behind Stanfield. Elite teammate Troy Coughlin Jr. is third at 6.606 and 208.17.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Matt Smith continued his title march, taking the No. 1 spot aboard his Denso Auto Parts Buell with a quarter-mile pass of 6.797-seconds at 201.04 mph. If it holds, it will give the point-leader his fifth pole in 2022 and 52nd in his career. Smith, who began the weekend with a 51-point lead over Joey Gladstone, is in prime position to clinch a sixth world championship.

“This is a good start. We messed-up in Q1 and blew the tire off it but we de-tuned it for Q2 and went to the top,” Smith said. “I’ve said this all along but to win a championship you’ve got to have no parts failures and not let anything stupid happen. It’s tough out here right now. Steve Johnson has a good bike. Jerry Savoie has a good bike, my wife (Angie) has a good bike and Joey definitely has a good bike.”

Angelle Sampey, a three-time world champ, is second after a pass in 6.807 at 198.64. Johnson is third after his run of 6.832 at 195.19.

Qualifying will conclude Saturday with two rounds to determine first-round pairings for Sunday’s eliminations. FOX Sports 1 will air three hours of eliminations at 5 p.m. (EDT).

Provisional qualifying results after Friday’s first two of four rounds of time trials for the 22nd annual NHRA Nevada Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 21st of 22 events in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series and fifth of six events in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs:

Top Fuel _1. Brittany Force, 3.665-seconds, 337.24 mph; 2. Mike Salinas, 3.697, 334.73; 3. Steve Torrence, 3.705, 332.51; 4. Justin Ashley, 3.716, 331.85; 5. Austin Prock, 3.731, 328.30; 6. Shawn Langdon, 3.739, 328.30; 7. Josh Hart, 3.741, 324.75; 8. Antron Brown, 3.742, 329.91; 9. Leah Pruett, 3.746, 329.18; 10. Tony Schumacher, 3.820, 266.90; 11. Rob Passey, 4.032, 297.48; 12. Krista Baldwin, 4.042, 241.50; 13. Clay Millican, 4.272, 198.17; 14. Doug Kalitta, 5.126, 136.72.

Funny Car _ 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.857, 331.77; 2. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.865, 330.80; 3. J.R. Todd, Toyota Supra, 3.870, 333.33; 4. Ron Capps, Supra, 3.889, 332.59; 5. Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.898, 333.25; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.912, 326.08; 7. Alexis DeJoria, Supra, 3.922, 325.69; 8. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.933, 321.35; 9. Chad Green, Mustang, 3.941, 321.19; 10. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 3.944, 288.89; 11. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.945, 318.77; 12. Jim Campbell, Charger, 3.972, 320.97; 13. Steven Densham, Mustang, 4.040, 306.60; 14. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.553, 194.83; 15. John Force, Camaro, 4.589, 178.35; 16. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 4.596, 181.96. 

Not Qualified _ 17. Bobby Bode, 4.759, 149.05; 18. Jeff Arend, 6.459, 101.68; 19. Jason Rupert, 7.395, 98.77.

Pro Stock _ 1. Aaron Stanfield, Chevy Camaro, 6.595, 207.11; 2. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.597, 208.26; 3. Troy Coughlin Jr., Camaro, 6.606, 208.17; 4. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.606, 207.50; 5. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.610, 208.01; 6. Dallas Glenn, Camaro, 6.610, 207.85; 7. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.614, 206.04; 8. Cristian Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.616, 206.89; 9. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.616, 206.64; 10. Kyle Koretsky, Camaro, 6.624, 207.62; 11. Camrie Caruso, Camaro, 6.633, 206.76; 12. Mason McGaha, Camaro, 6.639, 207.88; 13. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.643, 206.13; 14. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mustang, 6.645, 206.67; 15. Fernando Cuadra, Mustang, 6.649, 206.61; 16. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.654, 207.08.

Not Qualified _ 17. Alan Prusiensky, 6.687, 205.22; 18. Shane Tucker, 19.788, 39.43.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 1. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.797, 201.04; 2. Angelle Sampey, Suzuki, 6.807, 198.64; 3. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.832, 195.19; 4. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.844, 196.27; 5. Angie Smith, EBR, 6.846, 199.02; 6. Eddie Krawiec, Suzuki, 6.846, 197.02; 7. Marc Ingwersen, EBR, 6.855, 195.56; 8. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.860, 194.97; 9. Chip Ellis, EBR, 6.868, 196.67; 10. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.915, 194.83; 11. Ryan Oehler, EBR, 6.929, 194.86; 12. Gaige Herrera, Suzuki, 6.968, 191.87; 13. Jianna Evaristo, Suzuki, 6.989, 191.48; 14. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.996, 193.13; 15. Hector Arana Jr., Buell, 6.998, 196.59; 16. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.999, 193.46. 

Not Qualified _ 17. Chris Bostick, 7.054, 194.07; 18. Katie Sullivan, 7.067, 191.73; 19. Rick Newport, broke; 20. Michael Phillips, broke.


Sept. 15-18 _ Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, Maple Grove Raceway, Reading, Pa: Austin Prock (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Joey Gladstone (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Sept. 23-25 _ Charlotte NHRA Nationals, zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C.: Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Aaron Stanfield (Pro Stock).

Sept. 30-Oct. 2 _ NHRA Midwest Nationals, World Wide Technology Raceway, Madison, Ill.: Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 13-16 _ Texas NHRA FallNationals, Texas Motorplex, Ennis: Justin Ashley (Top Fuel); Ron Capps (Funny Car); Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 27-30 _ NHRA Nevada Nationals, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Nov. 10-13 _ Auto Club NHRA Finals, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 29 2022
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