Stewart's rewarding pace continues in New York By Marty Smith NEW YORK (Dec. 2, 1999) When Tony Stewart first jumped in the cockpit of his No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac some 10 months ago, he only hoped he could measure up to the talent level in...
Stewart's rewarding pace continues in New York By Marty Smith
NEW YORK (Dec. 2, 1999) When Tony Stewart first jumped in the cockpit of his No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac some 10 months ago, he only hoped he could measure up to the talent level in the ultra-competitive NASCAR Winston Cup Series. When he jumped out of his ride two weeks ago at Atlanta, he had not only measured up, he'd become the measuring stick.
Stewart enjoyed the finest rookie season in the 51-year history of NASCAR in 1999, posting three victories and 12 top-5s. Both are rookie records. Stewart's unfathomable success propelled him to a fourth-place finish in the points race, which, you guessed it, is the best final ranking for a rookie ever.
"We set two realistic goals at the beginning of the season and that was to try and qualify for each race and the second one, obviously, was to try to finish as many laps as possible each race day from the standpoint that you can't simulate those conditions in a test session," said Stewart, the 1997 Pep Boys Indy Racing League champion. "We definitely exceeded those goals and everything else has sort of been like icing on the cake for us this year."
Although Stewart reached a new plateau in the realm of NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing this season, it was far from easy. He started the year well, qualifying on the outside pole at Daytona. However, he finished "The Great American Race" 19 laps down in 28th. The following week, he posted a respectable 12th-place effort at Rockingham, but then dropped to 36th at Las Vegas. At that point, Stewart was mired in 25th position on the points chart.
He wouldn't stay there long.
At Darlington the No. 20 Pontiac team pieced together a then season-best sixth-place effort, then repeated that finish the next week at Texas. At that point, he'd surged to 13th in points, and was just getting started. Over the next nine races, he'd finish in the top-10 six times, including four top-5s. By the midway point of the year -- the SaveMart/Kragen 350 at Sears Point -- he had moved to sixth in points.
By that time, folks began to consider Stewart a threat to win each week, and he proved he belonged in that category at New Hampshire in the Jiffy Lube 300 in July, sprinting past the field and leading the most laps before running out of gas on the final lap. After that race, Stewart quickly departed from the track, avoiding the media. He would later apologize for his reaction.
"We've had some hurdles to overcome this year," Stewart said. "In your rookie season there's a lot of things to adjust to. I've had my temper get in the way a couple of times this year where it has affected what we've done on the race track.
"Those are hurdles that show what a great race team is all about. It shows the caliber of team you have when you're able to overcome those disappointments and those bad races to come back and have the kind of season we've had. I think it shows we've got a team that in the near future is going to be capable of running for a championship, hopefully."
After the fiasco at New Hampshire, everyone knew Stewart would win, they just didn't know when. Then, on Sept. 11, he dominated the race at Richmond to win his first race in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He would go on to win two more times during the season, pacing the field in back-to-back weeks at Phoenix and Miami.
"When we did our incentives with Home Depot we were sitting there and I was saying, '18th would be miraculous for the first year in points,'" said Joe Gibbs, owner of the Nos. 18 and 20 Pontiacs. "We accomplished those incentives in about seven races.
"I felt like Tony was going to be up front in a flash and have a chance to run up front quite a bit, but none of us dreamed he'd win a race. That's hard to do. I don't think any of us dreamed we'd be in the top-10 in points, certainly not the top-5. It's just been a fantastic year."
It's actually the most fantastic year for a first-year driver ever. Stewart's numbers are better than that of Dale Earnhardt, who previously had the most productive rookie campaign ever. His numbers are better than that of Jeff Gordon, whom everyone began comparing him to early in the year. They're better than that of Davey Allison, whom many consider the finest young talent ever.
Suffice to say, Stewart has measured up, and then some.