Time Ticking Down Until Stewart’s Top Fuel Debut


Tony Stewart will make his NHRA Top Fuel debut this weekend at Gainesville Raceway. (TSR photo)

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Perhaps the most anticipated Top Fuel debut this millennium will take place March 8-10, as NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart steps into an 11,000-horsepower nitro dragster.

Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, will debut for his TSR Nitro operation this weekend at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway during the AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.

The prestigious event, which marks the opening of the 21-race NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season, will be Stewart’s first at the controls of a Top Fuel dragster.

Previously a champion in the Cup Series, NTT IndyCar Series, and all three national divisions of the United States Auto Club, NHRA drag racing marks the fourth different discipline of American motorsports that Stewart has competed in at the highest level.

Though he got his feet wet in the Top Alcohol Dragster class last year with McPhillips Racing, Stewart recognizes that racing in the loaded Top Fuel class is “a whole different animal” than anything else he’s ever done.

“I’m trying to get through this learning curve right now with the Top Fuel dragster,” said Stewart, who takes the reins of the Direct Connection dragster from wife Leah Pruett, who will sit out the year from driving as she prepares to start a family with Stewart.

Though she won’t be behind the wheel, Pruett will still serve as the strategist and driving coach for the TSR team, a valuable resource for Stewart as he tackles the new challenge of being a rookie in a loaded Top Fuel class led by defending world champion Doug Kalitta.

“This is probably one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced in my racing career,” tipped Stewart. “I’ve been through so many divisions and types of racecars that I have had to learn in my career, and this might be the toughest of all of them. Now, just trying to figure these cars will be the most exciting part of it for me.

“I think it’s a huge advantage for a rookie in my situation,” added Stewart, who will have Pruett’s longtime crew chief Neal Strausbaugh and car chief Mike Domagala guiding him as well. “I have confidence in the team, and I know that they are way stronger at this point of the season than I am. It gives me a big confidence boost. It allows me to literally just work on all the little nuances in learning how to drive a new car.”

Where Stewart once had multiple practice sessions with which to glean information from in NASCAR or Indy cars, his weekend schedules at NHRA national events will consist of four qualifying passes over two days, before one to four elimination passes take center stage on Sunday race days.

“This is way different than anything I’ve ever done in motorsports in my life,” noted the Columbus, Ind., native. “It’s not like a NASCAR or IndyCar track, where I can go and make 100 laps in a day easily. This is a situation where on a great day, you’re going to have four … maybe five runs in testing. S

“Every lap that we get is super important right now.”

Coverage of final eliminations for the season-opening AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals is slated for 10:30 a.m. ET and 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 10.

The first television block will feature rounds one and two of eliminations, while the second block will showcase the final competitive rounds for all four professional classes – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

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About Jacob Seelman

Jacob Seelman is Motorsports Hotspot’s News Editor and Race Face Digital’s Director of Content, as well as a veteran of more than a decade in the racing industry as a professional, though he’s spent his entire life in the garage and pit area.