Monday, November 21, 2011

Little did I know what Tony Stewart would become

It was about 20 years ago and I was working at a small paper in Columbus, Ind., and being an auto racing enthusiast, I had heard about a local youngster who was driving United States Auto Club sprint and midget cars.
Driving those types of machines, mostly on one-half mile to quarter-mile dirt tracks, does not guarantee success nor is that series an automatic track to becoming a big-time star an auto racing's biggest series, NASCAR Sprint Cup. But still, something intrigued me about this kid, as he was then, and I asked my editor if I could do a story on him.
Getting the OK, and after a couple of phone calls, I made a connection with this young driver, I think he was 19 at the time.
His name was Tony Stewart.
He did not come from a well-off family, one that could support his racing talents with its own money. In fact, that day, I had to follow Stewart out on some back roads so we could get a picture of him with the car he was driving for owner Steve Chrisman.
This was not some elaborate shop the car was stored in. It was stored in a barn in the middle of Midwest farmland.
And I had to help Stewart push it out of that barn to get the photo taken.
Little did I know I was talking with now, after securing his third Sprint Cup title Sunday, one of NASCAR's all-time greats.
Even then, there was a sense of confidence in Stewart's voice when he talked about racing. It was his passion and while no one could predict this kind of future for him, there was just a feeling that I had better keep an eye on him.
A few years later he went on to win the USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles ... all in the same season, something that had never been done.
He graduated to IndyCar racing and won a series title there, but not the Indy 500 he had grown up watching and wanted to win so badly.
Then his chance came for NASCAR and he couldn't turn down a first-class ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. He spent his first NASCAR season racing in the Nationwide Series ( back then it was called the Busch Series). He learned the ropes there, especially after leading and appearing to be on his way to his first win, only to get bumped out of the way by Matt Kenseth.
But Stewart learned and was the Sprint Cup rookie of the Year the next season.
Even during and after winning titles in 2002 and 2005, Stewart's reputation wasn't always the greatest. He has been sometimes surly, and I think, early in his career, was a little overwhelmed with the kind of media attention he was given. He doesn't always get along with reporters, especially those who ask what he thinks are stupid questions. And there were times he definitely made mistakes in how he handled the media.
But whether you like Stewart or not, there is no pretending with him. What you see is what you get. And his level of maturity showed in recent weeks. He used the media to his advantage during this run to the title, often chiding points leader Carl Edwards, who it seemed, wasn't sure quite how to react.
Stewart matured as a race car driver by winning those first two NASCAR Sprint Cup titles with Gibbs Racing. These last few weeks, he showed has also grown up emotionally, not getting down during the bad times and showing confidence to his team in the midst of setbacks even in Sunday's dramatic win and title run in Florida.
And if I happen to see him and remind of the day we pushed that sprint car out of Steve Chrisman's barn, he remembers like it was yesterday.
And that's why he became not just a winner, but a champion, too.

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