What Tony Stewart Can Expect in NHRA Top Fuel Dragster Class

Jackson Wheeler
8 Min Read

  • Tony Stewart says his goal in his move from the NHRA Top Alcohol class to Top Fuel dragster is ‘not to suck, not to get fired by my wife,’ and not to kill himself driving the 330-plus-mph, 11,000-horespower, nitro-burning dragster.
  • His wife and Top Fuel mentor Leah Pruett says he has done more than enough to prepare for this moment.
  • Top-tier competitors Justin Ashley and Mike Salinas call Stewart methodical and smart.

In elaborating on his announcement at the Performance Racing Industry Show at Indianapolis that he will tackle the NHRA Top Fuel class starting in 2024, Tony Stewart—maybe only half-jokingly—laid out three objectives.

“My goal is to not suck. My goal is to not get fired by my wife and not kill myself driving this thing,” Stewart said.

Wife Leah Pruett, who said she decided months ago to step from the cockpit to focus on starting a family, reassured that she’s completely comfortable with Stewart in the race car he called the biggest challenge of his career. She said he exhibited “extreme composure from the first time he got in the Top Alcohol car, all the way to fighting for that championship.” She noted that he registered the class’ best average reaction time. She complimented “his very quick learning curve and his adaptability.”

auto oct 27 nhra nevada nationals

Tony Stewart finished runner-up in the championship in NHRA Sportsman Top Alcohol dragsters in 2023.

Icon Sportswire//Getty Images

She said, “You can’t drive a Top Fuel dragster very well until you drive a Top Fuel dragster. He’s done more than enough of what it takes to be in this position.” But she said, “I have things in mind of what we will address when he gets in the Top Fuel car of what to do at different parts of the racetrack depending on track temp, how you pedal it, how you pedal it at the hit versus 200 feet down-track. These are all things that take laps [to master], and we’ll identify them as soon as they happen. He’s proven to me that he can conceptualize them and then execute, and I really couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Pruett acknowledged that the level of competition is “so exponentially stiff” each season. At least a couple of his new on-track rivals, Justin Ashley and Mike Salinas have seen Top Fuel championship combat. And they reacted to Stewart’s announcement with joy rather than fear.

Ashley smiled at Stewart’s “goals” and said, “I think he says that, but he’s just being humble. I have no doubt that he’s going to get right in the seat and he’s going to be absolutely fine and do a good job. He’s driven a number of different race cars. This is obviously different than anything he’s driven before, but I have a lot of respect for him as a driver, as a person, as a businessman.”

Stewart raced in the Top Alcohol Dragster class and was runner-up to Julie Nataas in the final standings.

“One of his best attributes is his ability to keep emotion out of it. He’s very mechanical. He does the same thing each and every time behind the wheel, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s qualifying or the final round of eliminations, he does the same thing every time. And that’s a dangerous thing for opponents, because he knows how to get the job done. He’s been in high-pressure situations before, so I have no doubt with that team behind him that they’re going to have a lot of success relatively quick,” Ashley said.

He adapted immediately to the McPhillips Family’s alcohol dragster, and Ashley, who took the same route, said that will bolster Stewart’s performance in Top Fuel: “That was an important thing. I’m sure he could have, if he wanted to, to just hop into a Top Fuel dragster and find a way to do that, but he didn’t. He wanted to do it the right way, the smart way. And it’s not always an easy thing to be patient like that, but he was. And I think it’ll prove to be dividends. Those laps in the alcohol car are going to help him maybe even more than he realizes later on.

“He wants to be good at what he does, and he’s going to do great.”

Salinas agreed. “So him, we’re going to have a lot of fun with him, because he did Top Alcohol and he took his time—and that’s why it makes him so good at what he does. He’s smart. He’s very patient. He wants to be good at what he does, and he’s going to do great. He knows what to expect.

“It takes a long time to figure out how you play the game,” he said, “but once you understand the game and look by him running alcohol, he learned a lot. He learned a lot. The only difference is the cars are faster. That’s all. And he’ll do very well with it. I think it is going to be a great addition to the deal.

“He knows everybody, and he acts like he’s nobody special – he’s just Tony Stewart. What I love about him is he treats himself like he’s a regular guy and he doesn’t want to be treated any special because he’s Tony Stewart,” Salinas said. “The cool part about this whole class: we’re all equal. We’re all equal. Tony Stewart, he does all of his racing everywhere else, which is amazing. Driver, as he gets his feet grounded he’s going to be really, really good.

“And it’ll be a pleasure to run him. He’ll make all of us better because he’ll work harder, and he’ll try harder. I think it’s going to be good for the sport,” Salinas said. “He’s a great driver. He has a different mindset. He’s methodical. He wants to win, and he knows how to win. He has a product that is really, really good, and his mindset is he wants to win at anything and everything. He’s going to be fun to race. I can’t wait until we get to line up next to him.”

Headshot of Susan Wade

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 Speedofdaily.com, 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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