What he did just seven races later, however, raised more than a few eyebrows and played an important role in Stewart proving himself among the stock-car set. This weekend, Stewart returns to the scene of what turned out to be just the first of many show-stopping moments that have punctuated his 17-year Sprint Cup career.
The Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway marks Stewart’s 33rd start at the .526-mile oval. Driving the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), he looks to add to an impressive Martinsville record that features three wins, three poles, 10 top-fives, 16 top-10 finishes and 1,234 laps led.
It’s a substantial resume, begat by a rather significant debut.
Stewart was making just his eighth career Sprint Cup start when he arrived at Martinsville in the spring of 1999. The Indiana native had already impressed during his first seven starts that season, leading two different races for a total of 58 laps and scoring a pair of sixth-place finishes at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. On April 16 he upped the ante by scoring the top starting spot at Martinsville for his first career pole. While the 20th-place finish he walked away with was not the goal, a statement had been made.
Proving he was no flash in the pan when it came to negotiating the bump-and-run tactics that play out at Martinsville, Stewart returned to the southern Virginia track less than two years later for an encore performance of the pole-winning effort from his rookie season, earning the top starting spot for the track’s fall race in 2000. This time however, he backed it up by leading 179 laps and racing to the win. It was just the eighth victory of his young Sprint Cup career and the fifth of six victories he went on to score during his sophomore season.
While much has changed since Stewart’s early years competing in NASCAR’s top series, one thing has not – Martinsville’s designation as a racer’s track. It’s one of those rare venues on the NASCAR schedule where it’s less about aerodynamics and more about a driver’s ability to manipulate the tight, flat corners of the paperclip-shaped track. Stewart, having long ago made a name himself as a stock car racing ace, goes into the upcoming race weekend looking to tap into the experience that made him a 48-time Sprint Cup race winner.
Only four races remain for Stewart to call it a wrap on what is slated to be the penultimate season of his illustrious career – one destined for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, thanks in no small part to his exploits at Martinsville.