It hasn’t been an All-Star type season for Tony Stewart, but the Columbus native will have a chance to compete in tonight’s Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
It’s the 15th time in 15 Cup seasons that Stewart will be in the All-Star event, and he’s guaranteed to be eligible for several more. The NASCAR All-Star race features winners from last year and this season, winners of the past 10 All-Star races and winners of the past 10 points championships.
“It’s an event for the fans and that’s something that’s very important to us, but there’s a lot of bragging rights, too,” Stewart said in a press release. “Charlotte is an area where 95 percent of the Cup teams are based, so when you go there, you want to run well. You’re able to have guys come from the shop that don’t get a chance to travel.
“They don’t get a chance to come to the racetrack very often and see the fruits of their labor, so for them to come to the All-Star Race and see their cars run, especially when you have a good night, it really pumps up your organization,” he said. “You do it for your fans, but at the same time, you do it for your organization and your team. That’s why the All-Star Race is important.”
Stewart’s first trip to Victory Lane in NASCAR’s elite series came in 1999, his rookie year, when he won the Winston Open, the undercard to The Winston. He finished second in The Winston that year.
“It was awesome,” Stewart said. “To do what we did, even though it wasn’t with a full field … I mean, just to win a race. Winning is winning to me. I was real appreciative of it and just excited that we got to victory lane once.”
Stewart, who has nine top-five finishes in 15 All-Star starts, made it back to victory lane in the 2009 All-Star race.
“Probably the best part was the fact that it was the first chance that Gene (Haas) had gotten to come and watch the team run,” Stewart said. “For him to come to the track and the first night out, go to victory lane –- that was a pretty cool welcome-back party for him. That made it a huge night for the organization to be able to have everybody there and not feel like somebody got left out. Guys that don’t get a chance to come to the track, get to come to the track that weekend. So, it was cool to get guys in victory lane for the first time.”
That 2009 season was Stewart’s 11th in the Sprint Cup series, but his first as an owner/driver.
“We’d been running well before the All-Star Race, but I don’t think any of us had an expectation of when we thought we’d win a race,” Stewart said. “I felt in my heart that the team was capable of winning a race in the first year at some point, but I never would’ve dreamed it was going to be one of the biggest races of the year, especially in our backyard. I think that’s really what made it so big — that it happened much sooner than a lot of people anticipated.
“There were a lot of people that didn’t know what to think about what we were trying to do,” he said. “I think it really sent a message about how dedicated our organization is to being successful. It kind of quieted a lot of the naysayers and a lot of people that were on the fence trying to decide if I’d made a good decision or not (to become a team owner). I think standing there on the stage and getting the check was a pretty good statement.