The 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup season started like any other in the prior six years as a fan…my driver Ernie Irvan has a fresh opportunity to win that elusive championship. Irvan had won races and was competitive in every ride he had up to joining MB2 Motorsports in 1998 after getting forced out by Robert Yates and Texaco/Havoline.
He was my co-favorite driver with Davey Allison when I first started watching at age six. I didn’t know liking a Ford and Chevy driver at the same time was against a rule but I was young. I just loved fast cars and they were two of the best who could actually give Dale Earnhardt a run for his money.
Davey’s passing in 1993 and his signing connected my favorite car and one of my guys. Irvan dominated Charlotte in October 1993, leading all but six laps of the 500-miler after winning a Martinsville a few weeks earlier. He would be a presence for Ford and the main contender to dethrone “The Intimidator” in 1994 prior to his life-threatening accident.
That accident took a lot of what made Irvan great away and he had to worry about his family and himself since he had two young children. After winning five poles (including the Brickyard 400) and having six finishes in sixth during the 1998 season, Irvan started 1999 with M&Ms on the car. Irvan wasn’t as competitive that year and was still fighting the ill-effects of hard crashes the previous year that sidelined him based on his initial brain injury suffered in 1994. Another driver came on the scene in 1999 driving a Pontiac and was a breath of fresh air.
Tony Stewart wasn’t my favorite guy in the Indy Racing League by any means. Frankly, I couldn’t really find anyone to like because I was a CART guy and Andretti fan. Stewart seemed to be too cocky based on his results (since he drove the Menard grenade). He also was most famous for being beat by Matt Kenseth at Rockingham after he moved Tony over on the last lap in turn four in February 1998 in a Busch race. That race saved Robbie Reiser’s team and got Lycos (where did they go?) to sponsor the effort for the remainder of that season. Kenseth has become one of the great drivers of the day but he needed to win to continue and it was at the expense of Smoke.
Stewart never seemed comfortable in the lower horsepower Busch Series cars but immediately got on track when he and Greg Zipadelli connected on the new Home Depot No.20 team. Being a teammate to veteran driver Bobby Labonte and crew chief Jimmy Makar gave the young duo a foundation to follow and build from.
Tony’s first Cup race was the 1999 Daytona 500 and he made an immediate splash that caught this fan’s attention. Only Jeff Gordon denied Stewart from joining Loy Allen, Jr. and Mike Skinner as rookie pole sitters in “The Great American Race.” While race day didn’t work out so well and Gordon drove to his second 500 win, the stage was set for a new kid to make his name.
I saw his performance and figured he would be a good bet as a backup for me since Ernie was my guy. By August 1999, that all changed. A hard wreck in the middle of turns three and four at Michigan in a Busch Series practice prematurely ended Ernie Irvan’s career. The multiple concussions and blows to the head had finally taken its toll on the man who once was “Swervin’ Irvan.” Family and quality of life came to the forefront and Ernie decided it was best to call it quits.
At that moment, I was a fan of a rookie who had a few close calls. The two most prominent were when he ran the double at Indy and Charlotte and New Hampshire in July. Tony ran solidly at Indy but wasn’t as fast as eventual winner Kenny Brack. Charlotte was an opportunity because he had a fast Home Depot Pontiac and drove from the back to the front. However, his preparation (or lack thereof) in-between events played a role in his eventual fourth place finish and basically passing out once he got out of the car.
Tony Stewart gained the respect of Dale Earnhardt that day and if I needed confirmation that I had made the right choice, it was that night. He would run out of fuel late in the race at New Hampshire in July, leaving fans wondering when Stewart would finally win. Rookies winning in Cup were basically an anomaly back in those days. Davey Allison was the exception with two wins.
The September Richmond race, the 28th race of the 1999 Winston Cup season marked a historic night. While some of the legends and champions battled with the “Rushville Rocket,” Stewart was in command leading 333 of 400 laps in the Exide Batteries 400. Smoke finally joined the ranks as a Winston Cup winner. His then fiancé Krista Dwyer was emotional on pit road along with Zippy and the entire Home Depot team.
Smoke commented on how he was much thinner and had no gray hair but that the win finally gave him the belief that he belonged in Cup racing. Stewart passed up great rides over the years with Rick Hendrick, Barry Green and Roger Penske but his statistics are spectacular. 48 victories and three Cup Championships stand out to most. However, he was the first driver to win all three major USAC titles in the same year and followed those two years later with an IRL Championship.
Stewart’s greatness goes far beyond his driving prowess. His passion for the grassroots racers, dirt racing and great tracks has seen him win more titles outside of driving than as a driver. Eldora Speedway is a crown jewel in the dirt racing calendar and Stewart has carried the torch passed on to him by the Baltes family. He owns World of Outlaws Sprint Car teams that house two drivers (Steve Kinser and Donny Schatz) that have put the record books ablaze with victories, championships and triumphs in the Knoxville Nationals.
Stewart’s charitable nature for children, animals and people he cares about doesn’t get as much notice but his fans know this is part of the real man. Tony Stewart loves racing and loves to have fun. Since mid-2012, I really doubt it has been as fun for him. His leg injury in a 2013 sprint car crash (where he saved the other driver by turning his car sideways) and the Kevin Ward, Jr. incident a year later took what energy and passion Stewart had away.
His performance this year is the worst of his illustrious career. Driving around and not being competitive along with not having answers except for small glimpses (Indy, Darlington, September New Hampshire, April Texas qualifying) has made me wonder if he’s going to stick much longer. Today, he confirmed his exit from Sprint Cup and to greener pastures as a racer.
The way he spoke and looked on that stage reminded me of the young guy that entered the Cup series 17 years ago. Stewart looked like himself again and announcing that his friend Clint Bowyer will be taking his seat seemed to be a relief and joyful occasion. While I know and many others have written that Kyle Larson was the choice, I figure that “Yung Money” will eventually drive an SHR car.
I am glad that Tony Stewart is going to go out on his terms. I never thought that I would see my favorite driver win a race (Dover 2000), win big races (Brickyard) or championships. Each title had special meaning based on timing. His 2011 title had so many layers that no script writer could come up with a plot that dramatic. Brian France is so desperate to match the 2011 championship intrigue that he’s switched the format.
Tony Stewart will go down as one of the greatest all-around race car drivers ever lived. He still will drive different vehicles but none of them will be Sprint Cup. The rigid manner and engagements that fill a Sprint Cup driver’s calendar never fit with the loose, show up and run mentality that Stewart has always had.
Hiring Bowyer is a connection to that belief and their personalities are so similar it is scary. As a Stewart fan, the short list started with Clint Bowyer because he is a wheelman and loves most of the same things Stewart does. He is also a practical joker that loves life and cherishes the opportunity.
As a fan of Tony Stewart and someone who holds him as a hero, I am glad he’s leaving on his terms. Davey, Alan, Ayrton, Ernie, Dale, Sr, Lionheart and Badass weren’t able to. The Smoke Screen tour of 2016 will be filled with many laughs and tears along the way, diluted in Busch and Schlitz beer. I will cheer you on until the final lap at Homestead and one day I hope to meet you and talk about racing the way it ought to be. Thank you Smoke…
Passionate and knowledgeable Motorsports fan along with love of football, baseball and fantasy sports. Podcaster, bowler, reader and currently working full-time while still pursuing my passions.