Stewart closes first chapter By Marty Smith HAMPTON, Ga., (Nov. 21, 1999) Tony. Stewart. From now on, those two words will mark the standard by which all first-year NASCAR Winston Cup Series drivers will be measured. Stewart drove Joe Gibbs'...
Stewart closes first chapter By Marty Smith
HAMPTON, Ga., (Nov. 21, 1999) Tony. Stewart. From now on, those two words will mark the standard by which all first-year NASCAR Winston Cup Series drivers will be measured. Stewart drove Joe Gibbs' The Home Depot Pontiac to never-before-seen (or even imagined) heights during the 34-race 1999 campaign, winning a rookie-record three races and finishing in the top-5 12 times, also a record for first-year drivers.
Sunday, the phenomenal Stewart finished 15th in the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and in an increasingly rare occurrence, was never in contention. Even so, he was content Sunday evening, finally able to sit back and reflect on a unique season.
"It's been a great season," said Stewart. "It was great to see Bobby (teammate, Labonte) win today. Having Bobby Labonte is the biggest Christmas present I could have had this year. We're not real happy with the way we finished today, but I'm really happy with the way we performed in our rookie season."
Heading into his inaugural NASCAR Winston Cup Series campaign, Stewart was no stranger to success, but some still wondered if Gibbs had chosen a capable driver. Stewart had more than proven himself in the open-wheel ranks, winning the 1997 Indy Racing League championship. But after a so-so 1998 NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division campaign, many wondered if he had what it took in a stock car.
He quickly made it known that he had what it took and more, starting on the outside of the front row in the season-opening Daytona 500. He finished 28th in that race. Then he finished 12th at North Carolina Speedway the following week, 36th at Las Vegas and 11th at Atlanta.
From there, the record book crumbled. Stewart reeled off a record 21 top-10 runs, placing him higher than the late, great Davey Allison; higher than Dale Earnhardt; higher than Jeff Gordon.
"At the beginning of the season I was a little nervous and tentative about what I was doing in the car," Stewart said. "All it took was getting in a lot of laps and a lot of miles. We did a lot of testing early in the season and having Bobby on our side to ask questions, that all helped, too. My confidence level from the beginning of the year to now is just quadrupled many times over.
"It's just been a phenomenal year. I'm so confident in these cars now. I'm so comfortable in these cars now. I'm a lot more comfortable in these cars than I ever was in the Busch car. I'm really happy with the decision to come here this year."
As are many folks in racing's premier series. Stewart now joins Labonte, 1999 champion Dale Jarrett, Gordon, Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Jeff Burton among the absolute elite in NASCAR's top series.
"We're just really excited about this year," said Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief. "We just feel like we've got a little something to look back at now."
They have plenty to look at -- 34 weeks of unheard of success that surpassed anything in the 51 years before.