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Tony Stewart to begin testing in Gainesville ahead of Top Fuel debut

Tony Stewart will begin Top Fuel testing at Gainesville Raceway on Thursday to get to a comfortable spot before the points counting begins with the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, and he’s looking to maximize the on-track time.
13 Feb 2024
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Tony Stewart

As he prepares to start his preseason testing ahead of his official NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series Top Fuel debut at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, it’s about to get really real for Tony Stewart.

The motorsports superstar plans to test at Gainesville Raceway on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday to get to a comfortable spot before the points counting starts with the season opener, and he’s looking to maximize the on-track time.

Stewart has about 20 runs in a Top Fueler under his safety belts recorded during licensing runs over the last two years, and a full season of Top Alcohol Dragster action in his logbook, but he’s hoping to double his number of career nitro runs.

“I think we’d like to get at least 20 to 24 if that’s possible,” he said. “But it’s not about just throwing it together and running me down the track. We’ve got to make it work for the crew chief and crew standpoint and make the best out of all these runs. 

“As I’ve run Top Fuel through the last couple of years, there were some challenges that I was having in driving it. Austin Prock told me the only thing that fixes that is seat time and laps, and that’s the way I feel, too. The number that people say is about 100 runs. Well, I’m 20 into it. If I get 20 more in Gainesville, we’re part of the way there.”

Stewart is no stranger to challenges and debuts. He’s done it his entire life from go-karts to spring cars to NASCAR and IndyCar, there’s always a competition debut that brings with it the expected anxiety.

“It’s probably the same level as when I made my alcohol debut,” he allowed. “When you haven’t drag raced at all, that’s a pretty high level of anxiety. While this won’t be my first run in a dragster, I would say the anxiety will be exactly the same because now I’m running in the Top Fuel class against the best in the world.

“Every time I get in a race car, I have butterflies. It was the same thing with my first IndyCar race and for sure the very first Indy 500 or Cup race. But that’s why we do this. If it didn’t get you excited and nervous, why would you just waste the time and energy to do it?

“This is what I’ve done my entire motorsports racing career, but I also realize it’s not gonna be an easy learning experience. We’re going to stub our toes here and there, and hopefully, it’s not too expensive or time-consuming for the team for me to learn.”

While Stewart will of course have the best of parts and lots of them, and a crew chief in Neal Strausbaugh who came one win light away from winning the championship last year with Leah Pruett, Stewart is measuring his expectations.

"It’s going to be a learning experience, and no one can predict how long it’s going to take to get acclimated,” he said. “We’re literally going to take it one run at a time. I don’t even know where to set expectations because the hard part is you don’t know what you don’t know. 

“I think people are thinking I’m going to do better than what I’m anticipating at the beginning. I look at myself as the underdog in the Top Fuel class this year. I have a lot to learn, and I know what standard that I hold myself to as a race-car driver, and I just know that at the beginning of the season, I’m not going to be where I want to be 100%. The car’s not the variable in the equation that we’re worried about. 

“If we don’t win a race, it’s gonna be because of me. One of the parts of this that’s not scary is the group of guys that I’m racing with. I have complete confidence in Neal and Mike [Domagala] and Ryan [McGilvry] and the whole group. I’m the weakest link in the equation right now, so my goal is to get to the point where I am not the weakest link in the equation." 

Stewart would also seem to be the early favorite to win NHRA Rookie of the Year honors and likely will duel with Funny Car’s Daniel Wilkerson and Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Richard Gadson, the only drivers in a large pack of first-year drivers expected to run full seasons. 

“It’s not the driving force behind our season, but if we were able to get that, it would be an awesome honor because it’s not just Top Fuel, it’s all four Pro categories compared,” he said. “I honestly feel like it’s probably one of the most prestigious Rookie of the Year awards with all four Pro categories being judged at the same time.”

With his professional NHRA career about to start, his continued ownership of Tony Stewart Racing and reigning Funny Car world champ Matt Hagan, and, of course, the prospect of impending fatherhood, Stewart has a lot on his plate, but then again, he’s been in that position plenty of times.

“I’ve been at Eldora Speedway, where I own the track, I own the series, I own the race car that I’m driving, and I’m the driver,” he said of his recent experiences in the SRX Series. “So that’s nothing new, and when it comes time to get in and do your job as a driver, you’re not thinking about any of that. As soon as I put my helmet on, I’m not thinking about anything other than the task at hand.”

The task at hand begins soon with testing at Gainesville Raceway and the long road through a full season of NHRA Drag Racing that no doubt will be packed with challenges and firsts in what also no doubt will be one of the most highly watched debuts in recent memory.

To purchase tickets to the 2024 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, visit www.NHRA.com/tickets. Children 12 and under are free in general-admission areas with the purchase of an adult ticket. Get your tickets now for the Top Eliminator Club because these will sell out.

Quotes from this story were part of a much more in-depth interview with Stewart than ran in the January issue of NHRA National Dragster magazine. Read the complete interview here.