Tony Stewart plans to fill his first year away from driving in NASCAR’s Cup series with more than 70 races on the dirt and short tracks of his racing roots, including one at a beloved venue of his youth.
The Columbus resident and three-time NASCAR season champion is having a new three-quarter (TQ) midget car built so he can race at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds this year during the fair week, set for July 7 to 15.
“I remember when I was a kid and I raced go-karts and we had the fair race there, it was a really big deal to us. We raced the go-karts on the small track and the three-quarter midget guys raced on the quarter-mile track. That was something I always enjoyed and that was a big deal to us,” Stewart said during a Friday telephone interview.
Stewart said he thought it would be fun to build a car for that race. So he’s having friend Jason Setser, a local racer and car builder that he’s known since racing go-karts as kids, build the TQ midget.
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The Columbus native plans to race at the fairgrounds not just this year but in future years, too, pending other racing obligations.
His current obligations as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing have the 45-year-old in Daytona, Florida, for events leading up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500 on Sunday. Practice and qualifying for stock car racing’s signature event started over the weekend.
Stewart said he has had absolutely no second thoughts about his decision to step down from his role as a NASCAR racer in November after 18 seasons. He thinks that’s because he continues to enjoy the personal relationships he has made over the years.
“The great thing about my scenario: I’m still around, I didn’t leave. It’s not a scenario where I quit driving and I walked away from racing altogether. I’m still an owner and still around. I enjoy the people side of it, too, and that’s still intact. So for me, I don’t have to miss that,” Stewart said.
When asked, Stewart said he has not taken time to reflect on his accomplishments or legacy because he hasn’t walked away from auto racing.
Feelings about how this season will be different, however, are starting to settle in.
He didn’t feel the usual anxiety of preparing for the Daytona 500, a race that uses restrictor plates to control speeds — Stewart’s least favorite form of racing, he said. It will continue when he’s not on the track.
“When the guys that I raced with for the last 18 to 20 years, when those guys get on the track, and I’m not, that’s when I’ll know what it truly feels like. I’d say over the next week-and-a-half the reality will probably hit,” Stewart said.
About the only scenario where Stewart could see himself climbing back into a NASCAR Cup car — albeit reluctantly — is if a Stewart-Haas driver was unable to compete and an emergency driver was needed.
“In the event something happened and somebody needed to be in it, I’m sure I would get in it, but I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen,” Stewart said.
He added that such a scenario pertains only to this year, and that someone else would be an emergency driver in the future. Stewart would prefer that his driving now be limited to his roots racing.
Stewart said he carefully mapped out a way to balance his obligations as owner of race teams and series — including on the short-track level — and his personal racing. He’ll be at 30 of the 38 NASCAR Cup events, with the off weekends filled with personal racing commitments.
Some NASCAR weekends, Stewart will be present Friday through Sunday — for practice, qualifying, the Xfinity race and the Cup race. And for others, he will be present just the final day or two, he said.
Despite ending his driving career in NASCAR, that didn’t afford him loads of down time to relax before the full season ahead. Although Stewart returned to Columbus for a bit, he had a lot on his plate.
“It’s been pretty busy. Obviously, still being an owner with Stewart-Haas Racing, we went through the big change of switching from Chevrolet to Fords this year. And on top of that, we’re building our own chassis down there now. So we added a whole new department down there that we haven’t had. And on top of that, we added an Xfinity (racing series) program as well,” Stewart said.
He managed, however, to enjoy a week-long family vacation in Costa Rica before heading to Daytona. The trip involved his parents and their significant others, his sister and brother-in-law, niece and nephew, and Penelope Jimenez — his model girlfriend.
Columbus residents saw her in December when she rode in the same car as Stewart during the Festival of Lights parade in downtown Columbus.
For Stewart fans wondering if a change in his single status is on the horizon, he’s not revealing.
“We’ll just say that there is not a change in my status right now. She’s a pretty special person,” he said.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series events at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida.
Noon-12:55 p.m.: Cup Series practice
7 p.m.: First of two Can-Am Duel races
9 p.m.: Second Can-Am Duel race
1-1:55 p.m.: Cup Series practice
3-3:55 p.m.: Cup Series practice
12:30 a.m.-1:55 p.m.: Final Cup Series practice for Daytona 500.
2 p.m.: Daytona 500