For NASCAR Cup legend Tony Stewart, sprint car race at Virginia Motor Speedway in April is serious stuff

Unless you’re a hard-core racing fan, it might come as a surprise that Tony Stewart is still racing seriously more than two years after retiring as a full-time NASCAR driver. In fact, Stewart will race almost 100 times this year, more than any of the seasons when he won three titles in what is now called the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Many of those will be in a winged sprint car in the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All-Star Circuit of Champions, the nearly 50-year-old series he purchased four years ago. Stewart, announced this week as a nominee to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, will race with the series April 11 on the half-mile dirt track at Virginia Motor Speedway near Saluda.

Stewart, who is also part-owner of the four-driver Stewart-Haas team in the Cup Series, and of famed dirt track Eldora Speedway in Ohio, talked to the Daily Press this week about racing and about the upcoming race at VMS.

Question: What brought you to being owner of the All-Star Circuit of Champions?

Answer: The All-Stars were running and there was another rival series that was starting up, and a guy called me about booking a show for that. It somehow turned into that I ended up getting both series and just bringing it back to the All-Stars.

We were just trying to save the All-Star series and keep the group (of drivers) that was there together, instead of letting them split up.

Q: How did the All-Stars race at Virginia Motor Speedway come about?

A: The Sawyer family (VMS owner Billy Sawyer and general manager Clarke Sawyer) got a hold of the guy that does our scheduling for our series. When he asked me about it, they are such a great family and I enjoyed racing so much at Richmond (Raceway) when the Sawyers were (owners) of it, when I found out they got a dirt track, I didn’t even look at (the track) to see if it’s somewhere we want to go.

If the Sawyers are doing it, we’re in 100 percent. It didn’t take much convincing to get us to book a race with them.

The Sawyers are awesome people and I’m excited to come do an event with them. (Stewart earned the first of his 49 Cup victories at Sawyer-owned Richmond in September 1999.)

Q: Compare driving a NASCAR Cup car to the winged sprints. Why do you love driving these sprint cars so much?

A: Everything happens about four times faster in a winged sprint car than it does in a Cup car. Everything you’re doing in a Cup car, you’re trying to be extremely smooth with them nowadays.

The sprint cars are 900 horsepower with a 1,200-pound car. The power-to-weight ratio is incredible, and everything happens very, very quick in a winged sprint car, so you’ve got to really be on your toes. That’s what I’ve always enjoyed about them.

Q: How does the quality of drivers in the All-Star Circuit of Champions compare to Cup drivers? I know it’s apples to oranges, but how good are these guys we’re going to see at VMS?

A: They’re great. The guys you’re going to see that weekend, you’re going to get some guys that are going to come from Pennsylvania to our event.

The caliber of drivers is incredible. It’s tough some of these nights just to make the main event, so to get into the top 24 to run the “A Main” at the end of the night is an accomplishment.

In the Cup Series, you’ve got the same guys running every week. With a traveling series like we have with the All-Stars, you have different guys who are racing in a particular event that run that track every week, and when you come in as an outsider, you’re a little bit of an underdog, so to speak.

If you can come into a new area and beat these guys on their own turf, it’s a really good feeling.

Q: I saw you got a win recently at Ocala (in Florida), but it looks like winning in this series doesn’t come that much easier (for you) than winning a Cup race. What does it mean at this point in your life to win in this series?

A: Winning still means as much now as it did when I started when I was 8 years old, just like 2000-and-whatever (in Cup). The feeling when you win is exactly the same because none of them come easy

For me, when I win an All-Star race, I feel like I’ve done something. There’s guys in the series that are better than me in a winged sprint car, and that’s part of the challenge I love, and that’s part of what makes winning one of these races so gratifying.

I’m running 99 races this year, 70 percent of them All-Star races. We’re kind of like the Grateful Dead. We’re kind of touring around everywhere but not racing anywhere for points.

I’m running that many because I want to get better in these cars. The more races I can run and the more time I can spend behind the wheel, the better we’re getting.

The satisfaction’s the same whether it’s in IndyCar or NASCAR or anything else. When you win a race, it’s just an awesome feeling.

Q: From a racing standpoint, how enjoyable is this time of your life?

A: For 20 years I was used to being at a NASCAR Cup track on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We’re in that pattern of being at the (sprint car) racetrack all the time and we’re having fun doing it.

Q: People remark when they see you at a NASCAR track now, you seem a whole lot more relaxed than when you were a driver. Is there a little less pressure from the NASCAR standpoint being an owner than when you were a driver?

A: Absolutely. For sure there is. I’ve got a lot more flexibility as an owner, I don’t have to be at the track all three days during a weekend.

I kind of get the best of both worlds. I get to run my car and do what I want to do on the dirt tracks, and I have that flexibility to come in sometimes (for a Cup race) just on race day.

Some weekends I don’t even go to the (NASCAR) track, depending on where we’re racing (with sprints). For 20 years I was on NASCAR’s schedule 365 days a year, essentially. Now being just an owner, I have a lot more flexibility in my schedule to do what I want to do.

Q: Is this a feeder series in any way? Is there anybody you see in this series, if they wanted to go up to NASCAR Cup someday, that is talented enough to do so?

A: I think a lot of it is what guys want. For some reason, the guys who get into winged sprint car racing, that’s kind of where their career ends.

You still have guys like Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne who came from winged sprint car racing. There’s occasionally that guy that will break through and come out and get an opportunity, but for most of those (sprint car) guys, they don’t have any aspirations of going anywhere but running on dirt.

That’s what makes those guys so good. They make a living running 60 to 100 races a year on dirt, and that’s how they support their families and that’s their livelihood.

Q: As a NASCAR Cup owner and a guy who loves dirt racing and guy who saw the success of doing something unique at the Roval (the combination road course/oval race at Charlotte), what are your thoughts about a dirt-track race in NASCAR Cup? Do you think a Cup race on dirt would be good?

A: I think you look at how the (NASCAR) Truck (Series) race at Eldora (a dirt track Stewart owns in Ohio) affected the Truck Series. I think it was a big boost.

The best part is that you talk to the crew guys every year and how excited they are to be there. I don’t think they say that about every pavement track they go to, so I think there’s something unique about having that special event on dirt for those guys each year.

I know Richard Petty thought it was a step backward, but in this era of entertainment, you’ve got to spice things up, and having a Cup race and Xfinity race on dirt would certainly do that.

We need something to give the series a shot in the arm right now, and I think definitely a dirt race would do that. You really don’t have to do a lot to the cars to change to run a dirt race, so it’s not like you have to build special cars for it.

Q: NASCAR has declined a bit since the days you and Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon (also a former sprint car standout) were at your peak. What else do you think NASCAR has to do to get back to some semblance of the popularity it had?

A: They’ve got to get drivers that have personality. It’s great having opportunities to drive cars, but shoot, they’re not even old enough to go to a bar and they’re trying to make these 18-year-old kids heroes.

I’m still a race fan, too, and it’s hard for me to embrace somebody who’s just graduating high school and they’re driving a Cup car. What have they done to really, legitimately earn their opportunity?

There’s hundreds of thousands of race-car drivers across the country that have clawed and scratched their way at Saturday night short tracks, and worked on their cars all their life to get where they are. Then you get kids with rich fathers and deep pockets that put them in race cars.

All the sudden, because they’re 18 years old, they think they deserve to be in a Cup car. I have a hard time with that.

I think there are drivers out there with the experience and personality that makes race fans want to follow them. That’s what’s lacking in NASCAR.

Q: I know during your last years in NASCAR, you talked about getting another shot at driving another Indianapolis 500. Have you given up on that, or is it still something you think about?

A: The heart says, yeah, absolutely, but the mind tries to bring the common sense back into the equation. As much as my heart wants to do it, I respect the guys in IndyCar and know a lot of the IndyCar drivers, and I know how hard they worked to be good at that level.

I feel very confident I could qualify and make the race. The hard part is just knowing that last 1 or 2 percent of knowledge those guys have, and expertise to be on the level those guys are.

It would be two years of commitment running (IndyCar Series oval) races to run that one event.

THURSDAY NIGHT THUNDER AT VMS

What: Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All-Star Circuit of Champions winged sprint car racing.

When: April 11. Gates open at 5 p.m. and racing begins at 6:30.

Where: Virginia Motor Speedway, a half-mile dirt track near Saluda.

Tickets: Adults $35, seniors/military $30, students (ages 13-17) $15, 12-and-under free. Credit card purchases can be made by phone by calling 804-758-1867 from 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Noteworthy: Three-time NASCAR Cup champion and former IndyCar Series champion Tony Stewart owns the series and will be racing that night. Former NASCAR Cup standout Kasey Kahne is also slated to race that night.

Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, mobrien@dailypress.com Twitter @MartyOBrienDP

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