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Stewart enjoying racing more than ever

Jeff Birchfield • Feb 20, 2019 at 6:42 PM

JOHNSON CITY — Tony Stewart is racing more and enjoying the sport more than ever these days.

Now retired from NASCAR, the three-time Monster Energy Cup Series champion has 99 dirt-track races on his schedule this season.

Although he achieved success at the highest levels of American motorsports as a NASCAR and IndyCar champion, he’s glad to have returned to his roots.

“It’s long overdue and I’m much happier now,” Stewart said Wednesday at the grand opening of the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet in Johnson City. “You can show up at the track at 4 in the afternoon and by 11 o’clock you’re done and going down the road to the next place.

“You can get three races in the same time it takes to run one of those major events. You just show up and race and do it purely for the enjoyment of racing.”

Stewart, 47, recently led every lap of the All-Star Circuit of Champions race at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Florida. Stewart won four sprint car races last season as a driver and his ninth World of Outlaws sprint car championship as a car owner with Donny Schatz.

He remains part-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, which fields four NASCAR Cup Series cars, although he’s rarely at the shop. His passion is still behind the wheel, and he talked about the recent win in Florida.

“That car was fast. The hard part was the track kept getting better and better and kept getting tighter,” he said. “We were going to get in trouble once we got in lapped traffic at the end. But that’s the best car I’ve had when it’s been heavy like that.”

Stewart’s two worst moments in racing came in the winged sprint cars, breaking his leg in a 2013 crash in Iowa and one year later, the fatal accident in New York that claimed the life of Kevin Ward Jr.

Still, those remain his favorite cars to race in a career that has seen him win such prestigious events as seven NASCAR Xfinity Series openers at Daytona, a record he shares with Dale Earnhardt, a two-time winner of the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, the Copper World Classic and the Turkey Night Grand Prix. From a competitive standpoint, barnstorming the country’s dirt tracks creates a unique set of challenges.

“It’s a challenge because you’re racing guys who stay around their home tracks and you have to be on your game to race with them,” Stewart said. “To go around the country, the tracks have different dirt. When you go to Florida, the clay has a lot of sand in it. What works there doesn’t necessarily work with the car in Pennsylvania or Ohio.”

NOT MISSING NASCAR

Stewart has plenty of great memories of his NASCAR career at Bristol Motor Speedway. He had 33 starts at the high-banked, short track with 10 top-10 finishes. It included a win in the 2001 August night race, when Stewart took the lead from Jeff Gordon on lap 432 and led the final 69 circuits.

“I remember we had a car that was so good all day,” Stewart said. “Guys got caught up a little at the end, but the middle stages, we were like we were on cruise control, riding around and logging laps. The guys got their cars better at the end of it, and we had to work a little harder.”

Stewart won 49 times overall in the Cup Series, tied with Kyle Busch for 13th on NASCAR’s all-time win list. His final season, he beat Denny Hamlin on the Sonoma road course. That track and the one where he scored a first career NASCAR win have special meaning to him.

“Richmond and Sonoma are the two tracks I miss,” Stewart said. “Richmond is always slick and you have to find positions, using part throttle. Sonoma is also as slick as can be. The slicker the race track, the more I liked them.”

INDY 500 PLANS?

Still, there is nowhere quite as meaningful as Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With Stewart growing up just an hour away in Columbus, Indiana, his two wins in the Brickyard 400 rank at the top of his NASCAR career.

He also has the deep open-wheel roots in the Hoosier State, the first driver to win the USAC Triple Crown with championships in sprint cars, midgets and Silver Crown cars in the same season.

He was also the 1997 IndyCar champion and has five starts in the Indianapolis 500 with three top-10 finishes, including fifth his championship season.

While it has been widely speculated that Stewart might give the Indy 500 one more shot, he said it’s likely not going to happen.

“After (Robert) Wickens got hurt (in a 2018 Pocono crash), I decided I didn’t need to be messing around with it,” he said. “I know I could get hurt just as easily in a sprint car, but to try to do that, I have too much respect for the guys in the series to think I can run one or two races and think I will be up to speed with them.

“I don’t want to just go to make the race. I don’t want to be a Danica Patrick sideshow. If I do it, I want to have a shot to win it. I would have to run a year with those guys to get back in the swing of things and where I felt I was ready to win the race.”

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