In his rookie season, Stewart quickly advanced from young up-and-comer to NASCAR superstar. It began with a pole in just his eighth career Sprint Cup start in April at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. It grew with a win in the non-points Winston Open in May at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. A near-win in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, where Stewart led 118 of 300 laps before a thirsty fuel cell left him 10th, let everyone know that a trip to victory lane in a point-paying race was only a matter of time.
That time finally came on Sept. 11, 1999 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Stewart started second and promptly led 333 of the race’s 400 laps to earn his first career Sprint Cup victory, becoming the first Sprint Cup rookie to win a race since Davey Allison on May 3, 1987 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Despite his rookie status, Stewart knew the Richmond layout well. Before he came to NASCAR, Stewart made a name for himself in the United States Auto Club (USAC), running high-horsepower, open-wheel Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown cars. While in USAC, Stewart competed at Richmond, running a Midget and a Silver Crown car. And during his ascendancy to Sprint Cup, Stewart made three NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at the track.
When Stewart first took to Richmond in a Sprint Cup car in May 1999, he instantly felt comfortable. Despite finishing a quiet 15th, Richmond immediately became a favorite of Stewart’s. When he came back to Richmond in September and left holding his first Sprint Cup trophy, Richmond cemented its status as Stewart’s favorite track
This weekend, Stewart returns to Richmond intent on regaining the swagger that earned him two more Sprint Cup wins at the .75-mile oval, along with two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victories and a Late Model win.
Stewart has had a rough start to the 2015 season, but last Sunday at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, progress was made in the form of a sixth-place finish. With Richmond next on the docket for Stewart and his No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops team of Stewart-Haas Racing, optimism runs high.
It should. Augmenting Stewart’s three Sprint Cup wins at Richmond are 11 top-fives and 19 top-10s with a total of 950 laps led, which ranks Stewart fourth among active drivers behind only Jeff Gordon (1,637), Denny Hamlin (1,390) and Kevin Harvick (985).
Just eight races into the 36-race marathon that is the Sprint Cup Series, Stewart’s season is still young, and it can begin anew at the track where it all began.