By Briar Starr, NHRA Staff Writer
After a dismal start to his 2023 Top Alcohol Dragster campaign, former NASCAR Cup Series champion and Hall of Famer sought out the Las Vegas Four-Wide Nationals to turn his luck around.
Coming into race day, Stewart qualified in the fifth position following three rounds of qualifying on Saturday. The Indiana native posted a time of 5.285 at 267.69 mph, which would see his first-ever Four-Wide Nationals appearance.
In the first round, Stewart raced against Summer Richardson, Team Scrappers Jasmine Salinas, and Johnny Ahten. As normally the rule for the Four-Wide races, the winner and the runner-up of the quad will move on to the second round. Fortunately for Stewart, he didn’t have to worry about being a runner-up as he won the round with an E.T. of 5.287 at 273.16 mph to advance along with Richardson who was the runner-up.
For E2, Stewart competed against Chris Demke, Richardson, and Cowie. Again, Stewart was victorious posting an E.T. of 5.293 at 273.94 mph. While his E.T. was slower, Stewart improved on his mph speed being quicker than in the first round. As Stewart won in E1 and E2, he would go on to the finals looking for his first career Top Alcohol Dragster victory.
In the finals, he squared up against some heavy contenders with Todd Bruce, Demke, and Jeg Racing’s Mike Coughlin. The final was no easy task as all four competitors were relatively close in reaction times. Stewart was 0.037, Bruce had the faster reaction time of 0.029, Demke 0.044, and Coughlin 0.048.
When all four dragsters rocketed off the Christmas tree, Coughlin was the first off the line. Despite that, the other three dragsters stayed close to each other and Stewart eventually secured his first-ever career victory by going 5.324 at 269.62 mph by a narrow margin of victory of 0.0003 seconds or one inch ahead of Bruce at the start-finish line.
“I know my win isn’t a win in the pro series class, but I’m really proud of it. The field has been tight all weekend and it was tight last year in the fall. I was just ecstatic to make the finals last year, but today, I told Leah ‘I’m not just happy to be in the finals. I want this.’ We are racers and we always want to win. No one likes losing. I think it was the perfect situation last year with Madison (Payne) winning her first national race and the rookie finishing second.”
“The beginning of the season has been super difficult with this new car. We went testing and found a couple of things that were wrong and went through the car with a fine-toothed comb to make it better. I knew as soon as I did the burnout on Friday that this was a better car. It was a hard day on Friday because it shook both sessions. We found the speed and got it balanced and need more runs to get it dialed-in. The third qualifying session was important because we weren’t yet qualified, so that run is the only one we have for data with this setup. It shows why Rich McPhillips has been as successful as he has because he can sit there and pick apart sections of the racetrack that we need to be better at. I’m so proud of my whole McPhillips Racing crew and their hard work.”
The day got even sweeter for Stewart, as his Funny Car team of Matt Hagan doubled up with the Funny Car victory to complete the sweep.