Despite its young stature, the Tony Stewart Racing drag racing operation performed with a veteran-like prowess on the NHRA circuit this season.
Matt Hagan captured his fourth Funny Car championship and the first NHRA national title for TSR, while Top Fuel dragster racer Leah Pruett finished third in the standings — her career best showing.
The team’s speedy path to success can be credited to a combination of factors.
Team owner Tony Stewart’s straight-forward personality aligning with straight-line racing. The tuning wisdom of Dickie Venables (Hagan’s crew chief) and Neal Strasbaugh (Pruett’s crew chief). Hagan’s all-or-nothing mentality. Pruett’s on-track tenacity.
It’s only been three years since Stewart entered the drag racing scene, so to reach the pinnacle of the sport so quickly with Hagan was somewhat unexpected for the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.
“If I had to script it, obviously the dream scenario would’ve been that final round in Top Fuel at Pomona, having my wife Leah (Pruett) be in the finals with Doug Kalitta, knowing that no matter what the outcome of that round was, one of those two was going to be a world champion for the first time,” Stewart said. “There really wasn’t a bad ending.”
With Kalitta’s 3.673-second run defeating Pruett’s 3.720, the season concluded with Kalitta as the Top Fuel champion.
Stewart noted his respect for Kalitta, who he competed against in the USAC sprint car series in 1994 and 1995.
“In ’94, Doug won the national championship and then in ’95, I beat Doug to win the national championship,” Stewart said. “Doug and I have a high amount of respect for each other, so that made it very interesting. But at the same time, I had a very calm feeling going up there for the final round.”
Obviously, the storybook conclusion would’ve been to see Tony Stewart Racing sweep the titles in both of the nitro categories, but nonetheless, Stewart was pleased with the team’s performance.
After the growing pains TSR experienced last year with the Top Fuel team — from Strasbaugh being a new solo crew chief to the team only earning one national event win and finishing 11th in points — Stewart was stunned at how much the program grew.
“To see where we were a year ago and see where we are now is light years further than what I anticipated and projected what this team was going to do this year,” Stewart said. “I’m extremely proud of those guys.”
As for Hagan’s championship-winning effort, Stewart praised the Funny Car operation, led by crew chief Venables.
“Just a top-notch, championship-contending team year in and year out,” Stewart said. “I mean, the competition is tough, and it keeps getting tougher and tougher in NHRA. And I’ve only been around it for three years now.”
The 52-year-old also made his own foray into the drag racing ranks in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. Stewart finished second to Julie Nataas in the standings, picking up four victories.
Stewart is among the many racing leaders appearing during Race Industry Week, which began on Monday and will run through Dec. 1. There is no charge to attend — click to register. Or, click here for the full schedule.