By Briar Starr, NHRA Staff Writer
Coming into the Las Vegas Nationals this weekend, NHRA team owner Tony Stewart was hoping to just make a strong qualifying run in his NHRA debut in a Top Alcohol dragster on Friday.
In order to have a successful weekend, a racer must first have a solid qualifying run to put them in the field. And with a competitive field of 21 dragsters, there was no guarantee that Stewart, the former NASCAR Cup Series Champion and NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, would be racing on Saturday night. As the time eventually came Friday afternoon for Q1, all eyes and pressure were on Stewart to see how he would do in his first-ever qualifying pass.
Despite the increased attention, Stewart was able to block out the noise for five seconds as he qualified second in the first round with a time of 5.219 seconds and a speed of 276.52 mph. After making his first pass, the Indiana native admitted he was nervous prior to the run.
“Relieved,” Stewart said following his first run on Friday afternoon. “Now it’s just like testing all over again. The first run with a lot of people around created a lot of distractions in the staging lanes. To be able to go up and do a solid run was the goal. Happy with that and now I’m able to run with somebody (on Saturday).”
The second round of qualifying also took place Friday night. Unfortunately, for his Friday night run, he smoked the tires and shut off his dragster early in the run but he still bested his opponent, who shut her car down before Stewart. He posted a run of 10.979 and 68.69 mph. For his final run on Saturday afternoon, Stewart was much better.
In his final round of qualifying, the NHRA team owner ran a speed of 273.61 mph at 5.290 seconds against Kim Parker. Stewart was straight down the groove and had the sixth-quickest pass of the session after Parker went up in smoke immediately in the other lane.
For his first-ever head-to-head race in NHRA, Stewart lined up against James Stevens. Stewart ended up winning his first-ever round win with a pass of 5.293 seconds and 271.95 mph over Steven’s 5.342 seconds and 270.27 mph. The margin of victory? Eleven feet.
“It’s pretty cool, I knew he (Stevens) left on me, but the McPhillips Racing team is used to running up front with this class (Top Alcohol Dragster),” said an excited Stewart, after collecting a round win in his first start. “This is a tight field. I found out after Q3 that this tied the tightest field NHRA ever had in alcohol competition. Tough field to be a part of, so I’m glad to get our first win. We have Mobil 1, Advanced Auto Parts, Carquest Auto Parts, and all of our partners that we have on our Sprint Car and NASCAR teams who wanted to join us in this experience. So, glad we get to do it again.”
However, this wasn’t an easy victory for Stewart, as Steven’s dragster kept with him all the way to the start/finish line.
“I saw his (Stevens) nose, so I knew I was in trouble,” he added. “But, that’s what this McPhillips Racing team does, is having a car capable of coming out the back end of this thing to get the (win) light on.”
With the victory, he moved on to the quarterfinals and faced Taylor Vetter. Vetter scored a win over Joey Severance in round one to square off against “Smoke.” Stewart had a slight advantage on the tree with a .062-second reaction time to Vetter’s .063-second. This time, he had a little breathing room, as he would win by 23 feet and had the second-quickest pass of the weekend. The Las Vegas weekend has been a successful one so far for the Indiana native, as racers and crew members have welcomed him with open arms.
“Everyone has been so supportive,” Stewart said. “Everyone from the pros pits to the support of the Alcohol division of the drivers and crews of how much they welcomed me today. Just an awesome feeling. It’s nice to get through two rounds today and get to race on Sunday with the pros now, so pretty big deal for me.”
Stewart will compete on Sunday in a first-ever semi-final appearance. Fans wishing to catch the action can do so by subscribing to NHRA.TV. Additionally, Fox Sports 1 will show Tony’s successful weekend so far Sunday morning with their qualifying show at 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m./ET.