NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beth’s Brief: Stewart Will Reach Milestone at Homestead, But His Place In History Alreay Assured

This weekend, while Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson settle the Sprint Cup Series championship, 2011 champion Tony Stewart will make his 500th career start. In 499 starts, the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has racked up 47 wins, 174 top 5s, 282 top 10s and three championships. And while those numbers are impressive, they only begin to scratch the surface of what has been a pretty spectacular career.

Stewart started his Sprint Cup career behind the wheel of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac with a bang, qualifying on the outside pole for the 1999 Daytona 500. Though he was relegated to a 28th-place finish, 19 laps behind the leaders, he wasn’t one of the 15 cars that failed to finish that race. His rookie season only got better from there. Stewart became the first rookie in history to win three races in a single season, while snagging the Rookie of the Year title and a solid fourth-place result in the final point standings. The 1999 season began the still active 14-year streak of at least one race won in every season.

Stewart’s first career win came that year at Richmond International Raceway, where he led 333 of 400 laps en route to victory lane before snapping up back-to-back victories at Phoenix and Homestead in the final few weeks of the year. And if that wasn’t enough, 1999 marked the first year Stewart ran the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. He finished ninth and fourth in the two races, respectively. Though he skipped running both races in 2000, he was right back to the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in 2001 where he finished sixth and third.

After becoming the driver to win the most races during the 2000 season with six trips to victory lane, Stewart once again won three events in 2001. Fast forward to 2002, where Stewart started off the season on the wrong foot. Having started sixth in the Daytona 500, he completed just two laps before his engine let go, forcing him to settle for a dismal last-place finish, but Stewart was undeterred and snagged a fourth-place result at Rockingham the following week, jumping 19 spots in the standings. And from there he continued to climb his way back to the top before eventually grabbing the points lead following a solid runner-up finish to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in October. Stewart went on to grab his first career championship by 38 markers over Mark Martin in a season that saw him snag three wins, 15 top 5s and 21 top 10s.

With just two victories, the 2003 season marked his worst points finish at the time in his career of seventh, and he following up in 2004 with two more wins and a sixth-place result in the standings. And that brings us to 2005, a year that was likely the best in his career until last season, but more on 2011 later. In the second year using the Chase system implemented by NASCAR in hopes of rewarding wins more than consistency, Stewart found himself as the number one seed for the Chase after the checkered flag flew over Richmond to end the “regular” season.

Having scored five victories in a span of seven races from Sonoma to Watkins Glen in the middle of the year, Stewart saw a 185-point lead over Greg Biffle shrink to just five markers thanks to the points reset. But that didn’t deter the then-driver of the No. 2 Home Depot Chevrolet. He went on to post three runner-up finishes, seven top-10 results an an average finish of 8.7 en route to his second championship in four years.

Fast forward again to the 2008 season when Joe Gibbs Racing made the switch to Toyotas after having run Chevrolets for the previous five years. My husband told me not long after the announcement that he expected Stewart to bolt just as quickly as he could to get back behind the wheel of a Chevrolet. And he was right: in mid-2008, it was announced that Stewart had been let out of the final year of his contract with JGR to pursue other opportunities, something that shouldn’t have come as a surprise given his loyalty to Chevrolet.

From there, Stewart became a co-owner at Haas CNC Racing and the team was renamed to Stewart-Haas Racing. The minute the announcement that Stewart would become an owner-driver with a team that hadn’t exactly posted stellar numbers previously, speculation began about whether how he would perform in his first year as an owner. He headed to victory lane, but it wasn’t until the 14th race of the year at Pocono he became the first owner-driver to score a points-paying win since Ricky Rudd had accomplished the feat back in 1998. Stewart went on to grab four wins, 15 top 5s and 23 top 10s, and while he was never a threat to win the championship, it was a season that was more than anyone–except perhaps Stewart and his loyal fans–could have imagined.

But one of the brightest shining moments of Stewart’s career came last season. He went winless through 26 races and even stated in late August “it really doesn’t matter whether we make the Chase or not because we are going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else that actually can run for a championship is going to be trying to take because our stuff is so bad right now.” Little did he know that would all change for the better. Stewart went on to visit victory lane five times in the last ten races en route to a points tie with Carl Edwards, one that Stewart came out on top of thanks to those wins.

Of course with all of the highlights comes plenty of attention both good and bad, and Stewart’s career has not been without incident. But the bottom line is that Tony Stewart has had one heck of a career and still has plenty of time to add to his numbers. And I’m sure he’d love nothing more than to head to victory lane this weekend in his 500th race.

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