The intense, often irritable Tony Stewart who races in the Nextel Cup series is very different from the Tony Stewart who shows up as often as he can at some of America’s grass-roots dirt ovals.
This Stewart, owner of two-car teams in the World of Outlaws sprint car series and the U.S. Auto Club’s National Sprint and Midget Car series, as well as iconic Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, is more fan than competitor.
“I just enjoy it,” Stewart said. “I’m passionate about the sport. I’ve always been passionate about all of dirt racing, but it seems like the World of Outlaws series and the USAC series are two that I really enjoy being a part of right now.”
Early in his career Stewart became the first Triple Crown Champion in USAC history, winning all three of its major series in the same year, then went on to win the IndyCar Series title before heading for NASCAR, where the two-time Cup champion is locked in a tense battle for another title.
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Heading into Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, the sixth of 10 races in the Chase for the championship, Stewart is fourth in the standings, 198 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.
Even so, Stewart was all smiles last week the day before the Cup race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway when he introduced reigning World of Outlaws champion and current series points leader Donny Schatz as a new member of Tony Stewart Racing.
“This guy is a champion,” Stewart said. “You don’t have to be a great evaluator of driving talent to know that. All you have to do is read the race results in the paper.”
Stewart, however, does have a good eye for talent.
Among his drivers, Jay Drake has gone on to the IRL’s Indy Pro Series and current USAC drivers Josh Wise, the 2006 Sprint car champion, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are moving on. Wise is going to be a development driver for Michael Waltrip Racing and Stenhouse will have the same role for Roush Fenway Racing.
For team owner Stewart, that’s a double-edged sword
“It’s hard to lose good guys like that,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got good guys and you’ve got them really meshing with their crews and, all of a sudden, somebody hires them away.
“But you know, as much as that’s a negative, for us as a race team I look at it as a positive, too. ...All these guys have got a ton of talent, so I look at it as an honor that we’ve helped these guys get to a level they want to go to.
“It’s similar to when I ran for Steve Lewis. He had a lot of guys come from that No. 9 midget. That’s what made his team so elite. They knew if they ran well in that car that it was probably going to give them their best shot to move forward. So it’s neat to make a kind of full circle and now be a car owner and help these guys get their chances, too.”
Stewart lights up when he talks about his race team or his track.
Schatz, who has driven for his family team until now, is thrilled with Stewart’s enthusiasm for dirt track racing.
“He gives a lot of support, pumping these guys up all the time,” Schatz said. “He’s a champion and he knows what it takes to win these races and he’ll provide us with everything we need, whatever technology there is, whatever support there is. I can hardly wait to get started.”
Stewart has repeatedly said he has no intention of following in the footsteps of other Cup drivers and his boss, Joe Gibbs, by becoming an owner in NASCAR’s top stock car series.
“That’s just too hard,” Stewart said. “It’s too serious and expensive. It’s no fun.”
It is likely, however, that his future, beyond driving a race car, will be built around his dirt-track teams.
And he’ll be as hands on as possible.
“When I get a chance to go to the track ...like at Talladega, when the Outlaws used to run Talladega Short Track at night during race weekend, we’d be over there every night so I could be down there with the guys working,” Stewart said.
“I’m kind of the grunt.”
Stewart added he does all the odd jobs, the things nobody else wants to do.
“With only three crew guys on a team, when you can help one guy out and lighten his load from the 90-some races they run every year – if I can help them by doing something they don’t have to do – it makes that night a lot easier for them,” he said.
“It’s fun. It’s fun to hang out with the guys, fun to hang out with the drivers. I’m not saying, ‘Well, this is what you’ve got to change and this and that,’ That’s the crew chief’s job. I look at it as playing the Joe Gibbs role, except we don’t trust Joe to work on anything in the pits.”
But one thing remains the same about Stewart the driver and Stewart the car owner: He wants to win.
Asked why he decided to leave his family team to drive for Stewart, Schatz grinned and replied, “The motto for Tony is: ’Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.'"