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Tony Stewart considers his debut in the NHRA's Top Fuel class a success despite an early exit

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart grabbed a soft drink and a seat on the couch. He plopped down, removed his hat and exhaled.

It was a sigh of relief.

Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion and the 1997 IndyCar champion, considered his NHRA Top Fuel debut a rousing success despite losing in the first round of eliminations. The 52-year-old Stewart made five passes during the season-opening Gatornationals — four in qualifying before an early exit against Justin Ashley — and did nearly everything right.

Solid starts. Clean runs. Much-needed experience. He even beat Ashley off the starting line, a notable feat considering Ashley generally has the best reaction time in the class.

“It’s not like I’m leaving here going, ‘Oh, I’ve got all of this figured out,’” Stewart said Sunday. “Had a solid weekend and didn’t make mistakes. Every run we make, there’s going to be new things that come up that I’m going to have to figure out.

“We’ve talked about them. You can talk about them all day long. Until you experience them and feel them, it’s a different deal. Everything that we did this weekend went great, but in a couple of weeks, it could go 180 degrees on us.”

Stewart became a team owner/driver when his wife, NHRA regular Leah Pruett, stepped back to try to start a family. Pruett suffers from an autoimmune disorder that prevents her thyroid from producing enough hormones and is unsure how her condition will affect attempts to get pregnant. Stewart jokingly calls it “The Baby Project.”

“Nothing to report on it,” he quipped. “Just going through the stages of the process.”

Stewart and Pruett started dating in the early stages of the pandemic, which eventually led to him creating an NHRA race team and getting behind the wheel of a dragster. He got his license and raced in the second-tier Top Alcohol class in 2023, finishing 21 points shy of winning the title.

Now he’s racing in the elite Top Fuel division and has quickly become the biggest draw in drag racing. Huge crowds gathered outside Stewart’s haulers during the three-day event at Gainesville Raceway, and he spent countless hours mingling with fans and signing autographs.

“Huge shot in the arm for NHRA,” said Matt Hagan, a four-time Funny Car champ who now drives for Tony Stewart Racing. “It’s one of those things where you’ve got people lined up forever just to sign some old NASCAR stuff.

“The cross-promotion that he brings, the sponsors that he brings. It’s filtering a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of people and a lot of energy just for him being here. If NHRA is smart, they’ll ride his coattails as long as they can. He needs to be the new John Force of NHRA.”

The series returns in two weeks for the Winternationals at Pomona Raceway in California. Stewart will head there still searching for his first Top Fuel victory.

He was admittedly nervous before his first qualifying run Friday, mostly because he had just nine passes in the dragster in 2024. Rain washed out much of a testing session in Gainesville in February, and with each 1,000-foot run costing roughly $7,000 in nitromethane fuel and tires (assuming nothing breaks), gaining seat time can be a costly venture.

Competitors have told Stewart it takes about a thousand passes to get really comfortable in an 11,000-horsepower car that reached 330 mph in less than four seconds. Stewart now has 34 runs in two years.

“You look at all the cars I’ve driven,” he said. “Every time I got in a new car, it was the same thing: I didn’t expect to win right off the bat. You know it’s a learning experience.”

He found a few things to nitpick in Gainesville. He backed up too fast following his first burnout and was too slow after his second one. And for his first night run, he forgot to switch helmet visors and ended up driving with a dark-tinted one that made a dimly lit track seem close to pitch black.

Otherwise, it was a solid start that provided a confidence boost.

“I’m going to call it a false sense of security,” Stewart said. “I’m elated, honestly. Obviously you don’t want to go out first round. But there’s seven other guys in that class that didn’t want to go out first round, either.

“Hopefully I gained the respect of the competitors this weekend. I had consistent lights and was consistent in my procedure where people aren’t going, ‘We don’t know what he’s going to do when he gets up there.’”

No one seemed be thinking that. At least not anyone who knew anything about Stewart’s racing resume.

“What he’s done in every series that he’s been in says it all,” Top Fuel driver Shawn Langdon said. “He’s a huge name. He’s a huge draw. To have him over with us just gets more eyes on the class, more attention on the sport. It’s only positive.

“We’ve seen a lot of people jump into (drag racing) and take it for granted. Tony didn’t do that.”

Added reigning Top Fuel champion Doug Kalitta: “He’s such a hard-core racer. You can just tell how meticulous that he’s taken this whole drag-racing process. We’re fortunate to have him out here with what we’re trying to do to build this sport.”

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