Tony Stewart says drag racing career is ‘where my heart is’ as he enters NHRA

Tony Stewart drag racing
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Before starting his new drag racing career, Tony Stewart usually has let guys with families hit the runway first following NASCAR races. The Hall of Fame driver who’s now a team owner and part-time television commentator figures it helps them get home and see their kids before bedtime.

It’s a noble gesture, for sure – one he dumped on the tarmac this week.

“I’m getting to the airport first and getting out of there,” Stewart said. “I got bigger fish to fry.”

More accurate: a new career path to start.

The 51-year-old Stewart is embarking on his first season as a full-time NHRA driver, and he’s all in. He will race a Top Alcohol dragster for McPhillips Racing when the season begins next week with the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

“I’m here; it’s where my heart is,” he said.

For Stewart, it’s the latest – and arguably most challenging – lane change for a guy who’s dedicated his life to motorsports. The three-time NASCAR champion also has titles in IndyCar and USAC as well as a fourth in NASCAR as co-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing. Most recently, he claimed the inaugural Superstar Racing Experience title, a summer stock car series he founded in 2021.

“Everything that I did in motorsports pretty much was all in the same bubble, even dirt-track racing, sports-car racing, NASCAR, IndyCar,” Stewart said. “NHRA is off on its own island.”

He calls it “Fantasy Island,” not that surprising considering he met his wife, NHRA Top Fuel dragster Leah Pruett, at an event in 2020. They got engaged in March 2021 and were married later that year.

Now, Pruett is driving her second season for Tony Stewart Racing. Three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan also drives for TSR.

Stewart, though, is racing in a lower class. And he doesn’t see himself moving up anytime soon, if at all.

“I’m not ready for it,” he said. “I’ve driven a Top Fuel car 16 runs and every run I make in it, the more I realize that I am not ready to drive a Top Fuel dragster, and I don’t belong in one right now.

“It’s fine to test with it. But those cars are so fast that my brain is so far behind the car that if something happens, I don’t know that I could catch it or be ready for it.”

He has another reason to avoid making the jump.

“The last thing I want to do is have to race against my wife because I like my side of the bed every night,” he quipped.

Stewart made his NHRA Top Alcohol debut in October at the Nevada Nationals, where he advanced to the finals and finished second by .0002 of a second. Stewart’s 271.57 mph pass came up 1 inch short of the victory.

Madison Payne, a college student at Texas Christian University and a third-generation drag racer, edged Stewart in the quarter mile.

“It was good for the sport because Tony is such a big name,” Payne said on racing podcast “Between The Slicks” in January. “But I was so happy I beat him. It would just be so messed up if anybody came into the sport and won their first race. No, it’s not fair.”

That one race weekend was enough to convince Stewart he wanted more. Now, he’s running for a championship and will race 12 of 14 national events; he will miss the Northwest Nationals in Kent, Washington (July 21-23) and the NHRA Nationals in Topeka, Kansas (Aug. 11-13) because of prior engagements.

He also is scheduled to compete in select regional races, beginning this week with the Baby Gators in Gainesville. The NHRA schedule, combined with NASCAR and SRX duties, have him feeling “like a Thanksgiving plate.”

“I have covered every inch of surface that I can put anything else on,” Stewart said.

He put sprint-car racing on hold, and while he had conversations about returning to NASCAR to run the dirt-track event at Bristol Motor Speedway, he shelved that, too.

“I’m just trying to be an average husband; I’m not even trying to set the bar too high,” he said. “I just want to do the right things and have fun with my wife. … If Leah retired tomorrow, I would still be involved in the same capacity than I am right now.

“It has nothing to do with our relationship. She just helped set the hook on getting me addicted to an NHRA.”

Eli Tomac wins Seattle Supercross, ties Cooper Webb in championship points


In the past two weeks, Eli Tomac lost his momentum and with it the Monster Energy Supercross red plate to Cooper Webb, but a gutsy performance in Seattle gave him a sixth win of the season as he and the series heads into an off week tied. Tomac is currently tied in the points with Webb.

With this win, Tomac also ties James Stewart for second on the all-time wins list at 50 with six rounds remaining in 2023.

“I needed that bounce back,” Tomac told NBC Sports’ Will Christien. “It was almost like I was in a little bit of a slump in the past couple of weeks; just a little bit off. I’m feeling much better now. That track raced really cool. There were a lot of different lines out there.

“It was obviously very dicey early on. I got passed and then had to make those passes back.”

Tomac suffered with a stiff neck in Indianapolis two weeks ago when he lost the red plate to Webb for the first time in 2023. In that race, he scored his worst finish of the season in eighth. He lost more points in Detroit after finishing a distant third behind Chase Sexton and Webb. This is the fifth time this season that Tomac and Webb finished 1-2 in a race. Tomac has won them all, but Webb has been more consistent.

RESULTS: How they finished for the 450 Main in Seattle

Webb was disappointed to lose the ground to Tomac, but he will enter the Glendale, Arizona race with a red plate and a share of the points’ lead.

“It was overall a great night to get up front and get a second was great,” Webb said after the race. “Those few spots where I would get close to Eli and then make a mistake.

“The track was gnarly. It was no joke. It was cat and mouse as to who could ride the cleanest race and pick the line. I got off to a decent start, but Chase and Eli were ahead of me and I had some catchup to play and got into a good position.”

Early in the race, Sexton was indeed ahead of Webb and the remainder of the field. Another costly mistake sent Sexton to the ground. He battled back to finish fifth but is now 22 points out of the lead and in jeopardy of dropping out of championship contention unless Tomac and Webb have problems.

Rounding out the podium was Justin Barcia, who scored the third-place finish on his birthday

“Awesome ride,” Barcia said. “It was a lot of fun. I’m sure we kept the fans on their feet tonight. The track was gnarly. […] We’re searching; we’re so close to having that speed. We want it so badly. We’ll keep pushing hard and going for that win.”

Sexton’s mistake kept the three top points’ earners of 2023 from sharing the podium for the sixth time in 11 rounds, but the trio finished 1-2-3 in Heat 2 with Webb first, Sexton second and Tomac third.

The 250 West contenders were back in action after giving the last four rounds over to the East riders and Jett Lawrence picked up where he left off in Oakland: In Victory Lane. Lawrence scored his fourth win in five 250 West rounds. Last week his brother Hunter Lawrence tied Jett with 10 wins, but everyone knew it would not take long for Jett to regain the advantage.

Between them, the Lawrence brothers have won all but one race each in their respective divisions.

Lawrence rode a patient race in the Main. He settled in behind Stylez Robertson and concentrated on navigating the ruts mistake-free. He could not afford to be patient any longer when Cameron McAdoo caught up to the leaders. Lawrence found a second gear and gapped the battle for second.

An incident in their main made the battle between Lawrence and McAdoo more dramatic. While racing for second, the pair of riders ran out of room in the rhythm section. Both crashed but had a large enough lead over fourth to maintain their positions.

“It was a very eventful day,” Lawrence told NBC Sports’s Daniel Blair, answering a question about the earlier contact. “[…] It’s good to be back racing. It’s been a while. I feel like I’ve had another offseason. Glad to get out in one piece tonight.”

Lawrence now has a 23-point advantage over the field with four rounds remaining.

Click here for full 250 Main Results

RJ Hampshire finished second in his race and is second in the points after a seesaw affair that produced the final pass for position just before the white flag was displayed.

“I felt like I had a pretty good pace going for a little bit,” Hampshire said. “I closed the gap and then had a couple of big mistakes that almost put me on my head. I backed it off a little bit.

“Cam actually gapped me a little more than I would have wanted. I knew I could get a push there at the end. I thought that was the last lap, which is why my pass was a little more aggressive than it should have been, but I’m stoked to be able to close the gap a little bit.”

McAdoo took the final spot on the podium. This is the fourth time in 2023 these three riders have shared the box and if not for a sixth-place finish in Anaheim 2, he would be mounting a much more formidable challenge for the points’ lead.

“The track was really demanding tonight,” McAdoo said. “It did change a lot and the key thing was to get off the rhythms every time. We were swapping back and forth.”

Enzo Lopes in fourth and Max Vohland rounded out the top five.

Robertson had the early lead but when he lost the top spot to Jett he cross rutted on the next lap, crashed hard and failed to finish.

2023 Race Recaps

Detroit: Chase Sexton inherits win after Aaron Plessinger falls
Indianapolis: Ken Roczen gets first win in more than a year
Daytona: Eli Tomac extends Daytona record with seventh win
Arlington: Cooper Webb wins for second time, closes to two of Tomac
Oakland: Tomac ties Ricky Carmichael with 48 wins
Tampa: Webb gets first 2023 win
Houston: Tomac bounces back from A2 crash to win third race of 2023
Anaheim 2: Triple Crown produces new winners Chase Sexton, Levi Kitchen
San Diego: Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Tomac wins opener for the first time

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