Tony Stewart Wasn’t the Top Pick to Replace Leah Pruett in NHRA Top Fuel Seat

Jackson Wheeler
7 Min Read

  • Lyle Barnett and Leah Pruett have been friends for years, since they had a mutual sponsor.
  • Tony Stewart had said many times he was happy remaining in the sportsman ranks in the Top Alcohol Dragster class but changed his mind around Thanksgiving
  • Though disappointed, Barnett said he isn’t angry about the change of plans and will continue to race in the Pro Mod category.

They sat there at the dinner table, Tony Stewart and Top Fuel driver wife Leah Pruett.

And it had been settled—when Pruett took her hiatus to try to start a family at the close of the 2023 NHRA season, Pro Modified and former radial tire racer Lyle Barnett was going to step in as her replacement.

Then Stewart, who has raced nearly every kind of race car except the quickest-accelerating machine on the planet, volunteered that he was ready to take on the 11,000-horsepower nitro-burning dragster.

“I did not push Tony into this position at all, Pruett said. “But mid-season, when the conversation came up again, I had plans with another candidate. I was trying to develop a testing schedule for this individual (Barnett) and then Tony rose his hand. We were at the dinner table, actually, and he goes, ‘What about me?’ And I go, ‘Dude, last time we talked, you had no interest in replacing me just a few days ago.’ And so I go, ‘If you are truly interested, well then yeah, speak up now or forever hold your peace.”

Barnett had been burned severely in a racing accident in 2015, and afterward he became acquainted with the Fire-Ade company, which manufactures environmentally formulated firefighting foam. Fire-Ade also was one of Pruett’s marketing partners.

Barnett, of Pinehurst, N.C., said, “Leah and I stayed close and would talk here and there and see each other when they would come to Charlotte. Then I started racing NHRA Pro Mod, and so I was around more. And when she and Tony started dating and he started coming around, I would usually try to hang out with him here and there, and I got to know her crew guys and whatnot.

“And I just expressed to her in the middle of the 2022 season that I had aspirations to drive Top Fuel. And I told ’em, ‘I’ve got some potential sponsors. Is there room for me at TSR for a second car if the money’s right? I told ’em from the get-go, ‘If I’m going to race nitro, I want to race with y’all. I like all of ’em. We all get along well. Matt Hagan and I are buddies. I just like their camp. I like all their guys. And it just felt like that’s where I wanted to be.”

These conversations took place as early as August 2022. Pruett clued him in on her and Stewart’s plans and had Barnett sign a non-disclosure agreement. At that time, Barnett said, Stewart still had some NASCAR commitments that “kept him away more than he could commit to a full season in a dragster. They said, ‘Look, we know you don’t have any experience, but you kind of fit what we’ve got going on here, so we would really like for you to try to fill the seat if you’re interested.”

Barnett worked with Randy Meyer Racing to earn his license, and the goal was to be ready to debut at this year’s season-opener at Gainesville. However, he said, “Because of some things they had going on, it didn’t look like the family thing was going to happen that quick. So it looked like a mid-year change. And then midyear, they’re top three or four in the points, and I get it. Why would you pull her out of the seat if they’re looking at a potential championship? And it literally came down to the last round of the year.”

Pruett faced off against Doug Kalitta for the NHRA Finals trophy in a winner-take-all championship showdown. Kalitta won the race and the title, and Pruett finished third in the final standings.

But he said he understood Stewart’s desire to hop into the Top Fuel car, something that Stewart repeatedly had said he wasn’t in any hurry to do.

“I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed,” Barnett said of his first shot at entering the Top Fuel class. “But it’s Tony’s equipment and car. If he wants to drive it, then that’s his deal. But I’m not mad. Hopefully, should seat become available again, whether it’s in the near future or five years from now, that I’ll still be the pick. The fact that not only was I considered, but I was the choice is pretty fricking cool.”

He plans to return to Pro Mod action in 2024: “I’ve got a good car. I’ve got a good team to race Pro Mod with. I mean, we’ll be a championship contender, for sure.”

Headshot of Susan Wade

Contributing Editor

Susan Wade has lived in the Seattle area for 40 years, but motorsports is in the Indianapolis native’s DNA. She has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with nearly 30 seasons at the racetrack, focusing on the human-interest angle.  She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, and Seattle Times. She has contributed to Autoweek as a freelance writer since 2016.

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Jackson Wheeler is a skilled editor at, specializing in automotive content. With a background in Journalism and Automotive Engineering, he combines his passion for cars with his writing expertise to deliver captivating articles. Jackson's deep knowledge of automotive technology and his racing experience make him a valuable asset to the team, providing readers with informative and engaging content.
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