All revved up: Stewart ready for NASCAR’s start, motorsports honor

Tony Stewart has a lot of reasons to be excited at the moment. For starters, the 2019 NASCAR Monster Energy Series kicks off Sunday with the legendary Daytona 500 race.

The Columbus resident and Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner welcomes a new driver to the fold, following the team’s strong 2018 campaign. Stewart-Haas Racing features drivers Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Daniel Suarez.

And, next month, Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Cup series champion who also won Indy Racing League and sprint car championships, will be inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

Stewart, 47, who still races sprint cars and owns tracks and series and racing’s lower levels, chatted with The Republic by phone Friday and discussed the upcoming season and other things happening in his life.

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Q: You have now gone two seasons not being a NASCAR driver. How would you say you’ve adjusted to that? What’s best or most challenging?

A: “I think going into this year, I’ve kind of found my feet. My first year, I thought it was going to be a permanent vacation the rest of my life. Then last year, we kind of found my feet.

“I’m still doing the sprint cars and going to the Cup races. Everything has a routine again now. The best thing is the schedule. I get to run my dirt car and at the same time, still get to be here for the Cup races and be around the sport a lot.”

Q: Next month (March 12), you’re being inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. What do you like best about each form of racing you’ve competed in, and what do you consider your greatest moment in your hall-of-fame racing career?

A: “I think the thing I’ve enjoyed the most is the amount of cars I’ve been able to drive along the way, from IndyCar to NASCAR. Between winning an IndyCar championship, the three Cup championships, the Triple Crown in 1995, winning the Brickyard (400, twice), winning the Chili Bowl twice. Winning an IndyCar championship to NASCAR fans doesn’t mean as much. We’ve just been fortunate to have some pretty cool moments along the way.”

Q: You’re coming off a year in which all four of your drivers made the playoffs. How satisfying was that?

A: “That was the highlight of the year last year for me. That’s what everybody’s goal is. If you have a two-car team or a three-car team, that’s what you want.

“Last year for Stewart-Haas Racing, there’s so many records we broke. We had a race where we had all four finish in the top 10, then we had all four in the top eight, then they all got in the chase. It makes you proud of the effort that they’ve all put in.”

Q: You welcomed Daniel Suarez to Stewart-Haas Racing this season. What kind of expectations to you have for him as a driver this year?

A: “I hope it’s somewhere what we had last year with Aric. (Suarez) doesn’t have a Cup win yet, and that was the case with Aric when he came over last year. If we could get (Suarez) that first win that they couldn’t get him over at Joe Gibbs Racing, that would be huge for us this year.”

Q: What expectations do you have for Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole for the Daytona 500 and for this season?

A: “Judging off of (Thursday) night in the qualifying races, our cars have speed. The thing about the Daytona 500, you start in the daytime and you finish in the dark. The biggest thing is just getting through the first 450 miles and getting cars that are in front the last 50 miles and aren’t dinged up in the process.”

Q: You indicated last year that you might try to run the Indy 500 this year. Is that still the plan or a possibility?

A: “I was definitely interested, and I’ve learned to never say never. But when (Robert) Wickens got hurt last year, it kind of took the wind out of my sails. The days of coming in and doing a one-off race and thinking you have an opportunity to win the 500 … I think you have to do all the ovals to be ready.

“All teams, they know what you have to have to get everything right. You’re not going to be able to step in and compete against those guys right off the bat.”

Q: What kind of frequency do you have for sprint car racing this year? More or less than in the past couple years?

A: “I have 99 races on schedule, and 95 of them are sprint car races. I have a pretty aggressive schedule. That’s what I like to do. I’ve already ran 10 this year.”

Q: You got engaged to Pennelope Jimenez in 2017. Where do things stand with that?

A: “I’m back on the singles market again. We still talk every day, but just decided we both needed to go different directions.”

Q: Where do things stand in terms of your Columbus property’s use for hunting and fishing outings for groups?

A: “We’re still two or three years away from doing any deer hunting out there. Something that’s important to us, we know there were some neighbors that had some concerns, and I told them we will invite them out and give them a tour of the property and show them how we do things. We don’t have to do that. We’re not obligated to do that, but I want to do that as a courtesy. I feel like we’re doing it the right way.”

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Stewart-Haas Racing, which Tony Stewart co-owns, features drivers Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Daniel Suarez.

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Here is the TV schedule for today’s Daytona 500:

11 a.m.: NASCAR RaceDay (FS1)

1 p.m.: NASCAR RaceDay: Daytona 500 Pre-Race Show (FOX)

2:30 p.m.: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500 (FOX)