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  • Writer's pictureNick Cavanaugh @Car_Sick_Nick

Stewart Defeated in Opening Round of Top Fuel "Rookie" Debut

The racing icon may have been new to Top Fuel at the NHRA Gatornationals on Sunday, but he showed the skills of a seasoned pro



Tony Stewart, the racing legend, made his Top Fuel debut at the 55th annual Amalie NHRA Gatornationals and proved that he's no rookie. Despite limited testing due to rain, Stewart showcased his skills behind the wheel of the powerful Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) Dodge//SRT Direct Connection dragster. Known as "Smoke," Stewart impressed fans and competitors alike throughout the weekend.


Having achieved success in NASCAR, IndyCar, and USAC competitions, Stewart stepped into the cockpit of the popular red-and-black Top Fuel dragster, replacing his wife Leah Pruett. This marked his transition from the sportsman class in 2023 to the highly competitive nitro-burning Top Fuel category. It was a bold move for Stewart, especially as he and his wife plan to start a family in 2024.


Although Stewart was defeated in the opening round by the young Justin Ashley, he displayed his skill and quick reflexes. With a reaction time of 0.021, Stewart left the starting line ahead of Ashley. Despite both cars losing traction, Stewart fought hard, adjusting the throttle and narrowly missing victory with a time of 4.453 compared to Ashley's 4.414.


Stewart's impressive performance continued throughout the weekend, with strong qualifying runs of 3.725, 3.739, and 3.791. These runs secured him the ninth position entering Sunday's elimination rounds. Looking ahead, Stewart is determined to make his mark in the Top Fuel division as the racing campaign moves to Pomona, Calif., for the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals on March 22-24.


Reflecting on his first Top Fuel weekend, Stewart expressed his satisfaction despite the first-round loss. He acknowledged the challenge of facing Justin Ashley, one of the best leavers in the division, and was proud of his 0.21 light. Stewart's performance at the Gatornationals has undoubtedly set the stage for an exciting and competitive racing season ahead.


“I’m extremely pleased with my first Top Fuel weekend, even with the first-round loss today,” said Stewart. “I cut an 0.21 light against the best leaver in the Top Fuel division, Justin Ashley, and beat him off the line. We were the first pair of cars down the track on Sunday morning, so we really didn’t know what to expect. I felt the tires start to shake and I pedaled the throttle. I got back into the pedal as quickly as I could. But Justin just nipped me at the line. I’m elated with how things went overall this weekend. I feel we showed a solid performance with the car and myself. There is zero shame in my eyes, even losing to Justin. Seven other guys went home after the first round too."

“As a rookie in Top Fuel, I hope I gained the respect of the other competitors in the class. I feel I was consistent with my starting line procedures. I have learned a lot from Leah and Matt (Hagan) with these nitro cars. Making that first qualifying run Friday afternoon was the most nerve-wracking for me. Going from the alcohol car (2023) to the Top Fuel car is similar to going from a Busch (stock car) to a Cup car. The cars are different, but the procedures are the same for me. I’m not leaving here (NHRA Gatornationals) thinking I know everything about Top Fuel racing. I know it’s going to be a long learning process. It’s a tough situation for Leah not being in the car right now, but she has been the best coach for me. I would have liked to advance further today, but that’s racing and I’m still learning with each run down the track.” shared Stewart.


At the NHRA Winternationals, nitro qualifying battles begin on Friday, March 22, at 5 p.m. PDT. Also be sure to catch the heart-pounding action on Saturday, March 23, with two more qualifying rounds at 12 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. PDT. The grand finale kicks off Sunday at 11 a.m. PDT with final eliminations.


Don't miss a single moment of the high-speed, ultimate display of speed and power excitement!



Nick Cavanaugh | @Car_Sick_Nick | All Roads Lead to The Motor City


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