|It all began in Columbus, Indiana for Tony Stewart. At age seven, Tony started his career like many young aspiring auto racing drivers: behind the wheel of a go-kart. His father, Nelson was right there encouraging Tony to be the best driver he could be. Neither Nelson nor Tony liked settling for second. Nelson pushed Tony hard but he was fair about it. In 1983 when Tony was 12, he won his first championship: the International Karting Federation Grand National championship. Then in 1987, at age 16, Tony won another championship: World Karting Association National Championship. In 1989, Stewart moved from go-karts to open wheelers. He raced Three-Quarter Midgets (TQ Midgets) before going to the United States Auto Club (USAC) in 1991 where he won Rookie of the Year.
Then in 1994, Tony won his first championship by winning five times in 22 starts in the National Midget category; followed by winning USACs Triple Crown in 1995: the USAC Loctite Sprint Car Championship, USAC True Value Silver Crown Championship and USAC Skoal National Midget titles all in the same year – this first racer ever to accomplish such an achievement. After earning Rookie of the Year in IRL competition in 1996, Stewart won the championship the following year. It was in 1997 that Stewart began his NASCAR career running IRL and a full Busch schedule with team owner Joe Gibbs. Surprisingly, Stewart’s record with Busch was winless; however he had many top 10 finishes including two 2nd place finishes – one at Rockingham where Matt Kenseth passed him on the last lap.
Then in 1999, Stewart had taken the Winston Cup racing Series by storm. The Indiana native debuted on the front-row of his first Daytona 500 and went on to score three victories that year; more than any rookie driver in Winston Cup history. He also obtained two poles, 12 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes commanding an impressive $4.9M in winnings that year. In addition, this was the first time since 1966 that a rookie had finished his season within the top-five in points - he finished 4th.
Having snagged the 1999 Rookie of the Year award he also competed in the arduous Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day! After the IRL race at Indy, he flew to Concord, NC and competed in the Coca-Cola 600 where he finished 9th. Stewart became the first driver to complete both races in the same day – a total of 1,090 miles driven! However, he would top his own record when he drove for Chip Ganassi in 2001 at Indy then flew to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600. He also improved his finishes the second time around, finishing 6th and 3rd, respectively. Again, 1,100 miles were driven breaking his own record for most racing miles driven in one day. In Stewart’s sophmore year, he achieved six wins, two poles and a sixth-place point standing. Stewart won two more races than anyone else on the Winston Cup circuit, and passed Earnhardt’s mark for the most wins by a sophomore driver. This record was previously held by the seven-time champ in 1980 with five victories. In Tony’s third year, he attained three more wins and took a giant leap into the points standings. During that year, Stewart started in 36th position in points. By mid-season he was sixth and at the end of the year he was second.
However, 2001 brought Gordon the Winston Cup championship - 349 points over Stewart. Stewart proved that he needs to get a better start in the season to make those strong finishes later in the season pay off. Still, however, Stewart finished only 2nd to Jeff Gordon. And it was Stewart who came from fifth to second in points in the last three months of the season, riding a wave of front-running consistency that sometimes outpaced Gordon. It’s that late-season surge that points to Stewart as being the biggest threat to Gordon’s shot at a fifth Winston Cup championship. "Bobby LaBonte laid a pretty good blueprint of what it takes to win a Winston Cup championship," said Stewart. "Our goal this year is to eliminate the DNFs and work to better ourselves at some of those tracks where we just weren’t good enough. It sounds simple, but with so many things out of your control, its far from simple. Still, that’s our goal. We just have to go out and execute it this year."
In Stewart’s three seasons of Winston Cup competition, he has compiled one of the most impressive records in series history and has been a top contender ever since. Twelve wins, four poles, 40 top-five and 66 top ten finishes. Stewart’s quick ascent up the Winston Cup ladder has been likened to another racing superstar – Jeff Gordon.
Stewart continues to show success in 2002 and some predict he’ll win the championship. "If we’re going to win the championship, then we need to have consistency," said Stewart. "That means no DNF’s and no races where your riding around in 35th place. You might be able to get away with two or three bad races, but that’s it. Finishing each race is a must. There’s a big difference between having a DNF and finishing 43rd and having a bad day and finishing 30th. Winning helps too, but consistency – front-running consistency is what it’s all about."
After 31 of 36 points races, Tony Stewart is the leader in the 2002 chase. Both he and crew chief Zipadelli smell title as Stewart has displayed the focus and consistency that always brings him strong finishes toward the end of the season.