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The first page in the next chapter of Tony Stewart’s motorsports career will last less time than it takes to turn a lap at Martinsville. If it pans out, the NASCAR Hall of Famer can turn that chapter into a string of novels that would make J.K. Rowling proud.

Stewart goes to Las Vegas this weekend to make his NHRA debut. Whereas it was easy to assume before that he was only looking to cross an item off his bucket list, Stewart suddenly sounds interested in turning drag racing into his next career.

Again, though, it potentially comes down to a precious few seconds at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Tony Stewart evolved from NHRA fan to owner and driver

Tony Stewart talks to other drivers prior to the SRX qualifying race at Sharon Speedway on July 23, 2022 in Hartford, Ohio. | Jason Miller/SRX/Getty Images
Tony Stewart talks to other drivers prior to the SRX qualifying race at Sharon Speedway on July 23, 2022 in Hartford, Ohio. | Jason Miller/SRX/Getty Images

Though Tony Stewart is a man of many interests when it comes to racing, the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion is breaking new ground with the NHRA, and it wouldn’t have happened had he not spent extensive time watching then-girlfriend (and now-wife) Leah Pruett compete for a couple of years.

In between operating Stewart-Haas Racing and co-founding Superstar Racing Experience (SRX), Stewart was following Pruett around as she racked up NHRA Top Fuel victories. In typical Stewart fashion, being a fan wasn’t enough. He formed a team sponsoring Pruett and Funny Car competitor Matt Hagan.

“I don’t have a history of being a very good spectator,” he kidded with an Indianapolis Star reporter.

It didn’t take long before he was attending Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and doing additional solo testing in Top Alcohol dragsters. That established the foundation for this weekend, when Stewart, 51, will compete in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.

Tony Stewart thinks 20 seconds in Las Vegas could determine his future

Tony Stewart’s days of five hours in a NASCAR Gen 6 car at the Coca-Cola 600 are over. On Friday and Saturday, he’ll make four runs of less than five seconds apiece as he seeks to advance in the NHRA Nevada Nationals.

Somewhat oddly, he told the Indianapolis newspaper that ovals in the SRX Series or his beloved sprint cars are increasingly “a young man’s game,” yet he thinks drag racing, where reaction time in getting off the line is half the battle, could be a long-term endeavor.

John Force was 64 when he captured his last NHRA Funny Car championship in 2013. This weekend will give Stewart some indication of his own future direction.

“I feel like I have a really good idea in my head of what to expect, but nothing prepares you better than being out there and getting a chance to do it for the first time. At some point, you have to jump in the water and figure out how to swim. This is that moment.”

Tony Stewart

This is definitely a more complicated transition than going from a stock car to the Indianapolis 500.

“I’m probably at a bigger disadvantage than I’ve ever been in while getting into a new car,” he said.

Nothing in racing matches firing off the line in a dragster


Tony Stewart’s Return to Racing Is Dangerous and More Than a Little Defiant Toward NASCAR

Other than time at the driving school to qualify for his Top Fuel license, Tony Stewart has made just six runs on real strips, all on the days after NHRA events. Though that gives him some familiarity with what to expect, the NASCAR Hall of Famer still has not lined up side-by-side with another competitor.

Learning to react to the lights tree and then instantly shift focus straight ahead sounds a lot easier than it is.

“You literally step on the gas, and you get to the 330-feet cone, and your brain is 100 feet behind the car,” Stewart explained. “Your hands and your rear-end are feeling everything the car’s doing, but your brain’s sitting there trying to process everything that’s happening in those 330 feet.”

On top of everything else, fans and fellow racers will be watching the new guy intently to see how he measures up. Stewart wants to represent his team well and admits sleep has not come easily leading up to Las Vegas.

Does he feel ready?

“Absolutely not,” he confessed.

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].

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