Tony Stewart Talks Toyota, Leadership, & Image

February 7, 2008

(click on the above video icon to view Daryl Hobby's report from the Charlotte, North Carolina area.)

Huntersville, N.C. (WVLT/ -- Pick a racing series. Chose a style of race car. Name a venue. Chances are, Tony Stewart has proven victorious.

The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has scored 11 championships since he first wheeled a go-kart at a Westport, Ind., race track in 1978.

His most widely known titles are the two he scored in NASCAR’s pinnacle series. The two-time Sprint Cup Series champion earned his first crown in 2002 by beating veteran racer Mark Martin by 38 points and a second in 2005 when he bested Greg Biffle by 35 points.

This year, when Stewart guns for his third title, he'll do so behind the wheel of a Toyota. Toyota made its Cup debut last season and struggled to find speed. With JGR on board, and with an engine development program that could be the best in the business, Toyota instantly becomes a threat to win its first race at the Cup level.

Championships begat championships for Stewart, as the Columbus, Ind.-native came to NASCAR in 1999 by way of the IRL IndyCar Series, where he was the series champion in 1997. And before he made his mark in Indy cars, Stewart made a name for himself in the rough-and-tumble world of the United States Auto Club (USAC). He has four USAC championships, including what at the time was an unprecedented win of USAC’s “Triple Crown.”

USAC’s top-three national touring divisions are Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown. After winning the Midget title in 2004 and finishing 10th and sixth in the Sprint and Silver Crown divisions, respectively, Stewart went out and set a new standard of excellence in 2005 by winning all three divisions. No driver had ever won the Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown championships – divisions that run three very different types of race cars which compete on both asphalt and dirt – in a single season until Stewart came along.

A hint of Stewart’s impending success could be seen when he was still a youngster, for in 1980 at age eight, Stewart had won his first championship – a 4-cycle rookie junior class championship at the Columbus Fairgrounds. Two more karting championships followed, but this time on a national level – the 1983 International Karting Federation Grand National championship and the 1987 World Karting Association National championship.

Throw in a title from the 30-year-old International Race of Champions (IROC) during that series’ final year of operation in 2006, and it’s clear that Stewart is in a league of his own.

He is the first and only driver to have won championships in stock cars, Indy cars and open-wheel Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown cars. And his two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships made him one of just 15 drivers who have scored multiple Sprint Cup titles.

Along the way, Stewart has won some of the biggest races in motorsports. He is a two-time winner of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard (2005 and 2007), a two-time winner of the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway (2005 and 2006) and a two-time winner of the famed Chili Bowl, an all-star Midget race at the Tulsa (Okla.) Expo Raceway (2002 and 2007). He’s also notched wins in such famed USAC races as the Copper World Classic at Phoenix International Raceway (2000), the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway (2000) and the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio (1995).

And before he was a race winner and a championship contender, Stewart was a rookie on the rise. The Hoosier won rookie of the year honors in Sprint Cup (1999), the Indianapolis 500 (1996) and USAC (1991).

“When I started racing competitively when I was about seven or eight, getting a trophy that was bigger than the other kids’ was all I cared about,” said Stewart, who enters his 10th year in the vaunted Sprint Cup Series in 2008. “I couldn’t have asked for more out of this life. I feel like I’m a very, very fortunate person, so no matter what happens, no matter how long I race or don’t race, the goals and everything that happens from here is just icing on the cake. I’ve been very lucky to do the things I’ve done.”

Stewart’s racing career began at age seven behind the wheel of a go-kart, with his father, Nelson, serving as car owner and crew chief.

“He never let me settle for second,” said Stewart of his dad, who still frequents races whenever his schedule permits. “He didn’t like it when we ran second, and he knew that I didn’t like it when we ran second. If he saw that I wasn’t giving 100 percent, then he was on me pretty hard about it. He pushed me to be better.

“He never pressured me to be the best race car driver in the world, but he did pressure me to be the best race car driver that I could be. He never compared me to anybody else. He expected that what I could do was what I could do. He never said that because this guy over here could do something that I should be able to do it, too. He pushed me hard, but he was fair about it. That’s probably why you see so much fire in me today, because he always wanted me to be the best that I could be.”

By 1989, Stewart began the transition from go-karts to higher-horsepower, open-wheel machines. He raced Three-Quarter Midgets before turning his attention to the USAC ranks in 1991.

His first USAC championship in 1994 came to fruition thanks to five wins in 22 starts in the National Midget category. It was a prelude to Stewart’s historic “Triple Crown” triumph in 1995.

That success led Stewart to earn a ride in the fledgling IndyCar Series. He made the most of it by winning the series championship in 1997, which sewed the seeds of Stewart’s current success in NASCAR. A slate of 22 NASCAR Nationwide Series races with Joe Gibbs Racing in 1998 prepared Stewart for his assault on the Cup ranks in 1999.

During that remarkable rookie season, where Stewart won three races en route to the rookie of the year title, he also competed in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. The grueling trek, known as “Double Duty,” saw Stewart compete in an Indy car at Indianapolis before flying to Concord, N.C., to compete in the Coca-Cola 600 that evening in his No. 20 Home Depot machine. He became the first driver to complete both races in the same day, finishing ninth and fourth, respectively. All told, Stewart drove a total of 1,090 miles.

Stewart repeated this feat in 2001, when he drove an Indy car for Chip Ganassi at Indy. He bettered his mark from 1999 by finishing on the lead lap in sixth before jetting off to Concord for the Coca-Cola 600. He improved that finish as well, coming home third in the 600-miler. When it was all said and done, Stewart completed all 1,100 miles – breaking his own record for most racing miles driven in one day.

In addition to winning races and championships behind the wheel of race cars, Stewart wins races and championships as a car owner. His team, Tony Stewart Racing (TSR), fields two entries in the USAC Midget and Sprint car divisions and two entries in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series. His USAC drivers are Levi Jones and Tracy Hines, and his World of Outlaw drivers are Kraig Kinser and two-time and reigning series champion Donny Schatz.

Since its formation in November 2000, TSR has earned eight championships – seven in USAC and one in the World of Outlaws.

Stewart is also a track owner. He owns Eldora Speedway, a half-mile dirt oval where he frequently raced as an up-and-coming USAC driver, and is part-owner of two other race tracks – Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway and Macon (Ill.) Speedway.

In addition to being devoted to racing, Stewart is also devoted to philanthropy, so much so that he formed his own charitable foundation in 2003. Known simply as the Tony Stewart Foundation, the 501(c)(3) organization’s goal is to raise funds that will be primarily distributed to three specific groups – children, drivers and animals. To date, the Foundation has awarded more than $2.1 million to assist charitable initiatives for more than 80 organizations throughout the United States. One of the prime beneficiaries of the Foundation is the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, N.C., which serves as a year-round camp for children ages seven to 15 with an assortment of life-threatening illnesses

Stewart, single, still calls Columbus home, where he lives in the house he grew up in. He has a sister, Natalie, who assists with Tony Stewart Fan Club initiatives along with their mom, Pam Boas, who also is involved with his Foundation.