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“Zero Shame”: Tony Stewart Unbothered by Narrow Loss in Top Fuel Debut After Outclassing NHRA’s Best

Published 03/13/2024, 10:49 PM EDT

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Tony Stewart has always been a race car driver who hates losing, but when he failed to beat one of the NHRA’s best in his debut in the competition, Smoke was not upset. Surprisingly, he was actually pleased with how the day had gone and thanked his team, including his wife, Leah Pruett, and teammate Matt Hagan.

It was the first Top Fuel race of the season, and there is still a long way to go, so the former Cup Series champion will have more opportunities as the year progresses. Tony Stewart was eliminated in round 1 along with seven other racers, but the former NASCAR and IndyCar champion had gone up against one of the best leavers in the sport, Justin Ashley. When the two drag raced to the line, it was Stewart who got the better start, but Ashley’s experience paid dividends as he capitalized on the rookie’s mistake to take the checkered flag.

Tony Stewart acknowledges his rookie status as his NHRA debut ends in defeat

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According to his post on X, the Stewart-Haas Racing boss had a 0.21s lead over his opponent thanks to the start. However, top-fuel cars are among the fastest in the world, and it can be menacing to handle them at their top speed, even if they were racing in a straight line. Tony Stewart revealed that he felt the car shake and had to step off the gas for a little, and that’s when Justin Ashley swooped in for the win. It was a learning experience for Smoke.

If this were 2005, he would have been fuming about his mistake, but at 52, Tony Stewart is a mature man and sounded quite proud of his and his team’s performance. He tweeted, “I don’t have a false sense of security after five runs this weekend. I’m elated with how things went. There is zero shame in my eyes, even losing to Justin. Seven other guys went home after the first round too.”

“I’m a rookie in Top Fuel and I hope I gained the respect of the other competitors in the class. I feel I was consistent with my starting line procedure and guys didn’t know what I would do. I have learned a lot from Leah Pruett and Matt Hagan with these nitro cars. Things can go 180 degrees at the next event. I know it’s going to be a long learning process,” Tony Stewart further wrote.

Smoke’s time on that run was 4.453, while Justin Ashley narrowly beat him with 4.414. Stewart has raced in the NHRA before but not in Top Fuel cars, so that transition must have been a challenge. And when it comes to respect, Smoke earned that on Sunday from some of the biggest names in the sport.

NHRA stalwarts hail former NASCAR and IndyCar champions despite loss

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It’s important to note that Tony Stewart is only a rookie by name. For a lot of these drivers, he is one of their heroes. One such racer is Top Fuel driver Shawn Langdon. Speaking to the media at the venue, he hailed Smoke’s incredible resume and said that his presence was only going to lift the sport.

“What he’s done in every series that he’s been in says it all. He’s a huge name. He’s a huge draw. To have him over with us just gets more eyes on the class, more attention on the sport. It’s only positive. We’ve seen a lot of people jump into (drag racing) and take it for granted. Tony didn’t do that,” he said, as per Yahoo.

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Reigning Top Fuel champion Doug Kalitta was also full of praise for Tony Stewart after his impressive performance. “He’s such a hard-core racer. You can just tell how meticulous that he’s taken this whole drag-racing process. We’re fortunate to have him out here with what we’re trying to do to build this sport,” he said.

It will be interesting to see how the former NASCAR and IndyCar racer gets on with his full season in the NHRA. Will the 52-year-old be able to win a race in the competition this year? Let us know your thoughts.

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Written by:

Nilavro Ghosh

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Nilavro Ghosh is a NASCAR Writer at EssentiallySports, where he is known for his creative yet easy-to-read writing style. Before taking up his role as a sports journalist at ES, Nilavro has written for some of the top publishing houses, like The Telegraph. While most journalists stop at covering live events and taking the news to the readers, Nilavro goes the extra mile to give fans a platform for them to express their thoughts through his 'race reaction' pieces.
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Edited by:

Shivali Nathta