INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Stewart has one goal for his first Top Fuel season, which will commence at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., next March.
The three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion will be stepping into the Tony Stewart Racing Top Fuel entry to take over driving duties from his wife, Leah Pruett, who is taking time off to start a family with Stewart.
“It was literally Leah (Pruett’s) decision. I mean, everybody asked all year, ‘When are you going to run Top Fuel?’ I’m like, I’m never running Top Fuel because I’m never going to race against my wife,” Stewart said. “If you win, you get a ticket to the couch to sleep on for the rest of your life.”
Things changed when Pruett, who is not yet pregnant, approached Stewart about starting a family. Their initial conversation about it was about nine months ago — ironically.
“When your wife says she’s ready to start a family and mentions that she wants you to be on the list of potential drivers, it’s hard to tell her no,” Stewart said.
However, the 52-year-old mentioned he initially told Pruett “no” when she first mentioned Stewart taking over.
At that point, Stewart was only a few months into his first full season in the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks and wasn’t necessarily comfortable with the idea of jumping up to the nitro-burning ranks.
But over the next few months, Pruett and crew chief Neal Strausbaugh became more convinced Stewart was the right candidate. Their combined confidence in the four-time USAC champion was one of the leading factors in Stewart eventually raising his hand to volunteer.
Other than Stewart, the team considered Lyle Barnett to fill Pruett’s seat.
“When I was trying to speak about our plans with this other individual (Barnett), he (Stewart) went, ‘What about me?’” Pruett recalled. “We focused on what our objectives are and his was to run the Top Alcohol series, compete for a championship and learn. It was never to build enough experience to get in the Top Fuel car.”
Nonetheless, that was the crossroads Pruett and Stewart arrived at in the fall, when they were nearing the finish line in their decision-making process and the NHRA season.
Eventually, Stewart gave in. As he put it, “I trust her enough to marry her, I’m going to trust her enough for her to put me in a race car.”
Despite the agreement, there were still a few reservations on both sides.
“I wasn’t a hundred percent convinced I was the right person for this, but that’s what they decided and that’s what they chose to go with,” Stewart said. “I would’ve loved to have another year in the Top Alcohol class before even considering doing what we’re doing.”
Stewart earned four wins during his Top Alcohol season with McPhillips Racing this year.
He finished runner-up in the championship to Julie Nataas.
Vice versa, on Pruett’s side, after posting a career-best year in the Top Fuel ranks, it was hard to remain committed to her decision.
“The thought would creep in my mind during Pomona. Like, if we do win this championship, what am I going to do? How is this going to affect the decision I already made?” Pruett said.
The 35-year-old got her answer when she reached the top end at the In-N-Out Burger Drag Strip at Pomona after the final round of the season on Nov. 12.
“When I went through the final against Doug (Kalitta) and my win light didn’t come on, I’m literally still going 300 miles an hour and the words out of my mouth were, ‘Wow, I really gotta come back,’” Pruett said. “It answered my question right there, of like, ‘I’ll be back.’”
Pruett will remain on the Tony Stewart Racing team next year and plans to work in the technology department, as well as act as Stewart’s driving coach.
She will also run the PRO Superstar Shootout in Bradenton, Fla., in February.
“Ultimately, we just plan to optimize our performance in every way,” Pruett said. “As hard as I’ve worked to do well in my seat, I’ll work just as hard, if not more, to make sure that Tony (Stewart) is in the same caliber of race car, and maybe even in a better one next year so he can run right there for a championship like we did.”
Watch 1-on-1 interviews with Tony Stewart and Leah Pruett from Thursday’s announcement at PRI below.