Opinion: Tony Stewart's first ballot selection to NASCAR Hall of Fame a no-brainer

Bob Pockrass
Special for USA TODAY

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tony Stewart didn’t need to earn a NASCAR Hall of Fame spot his first time on the ballot to validate his place in the sport’s history. Stewart didn’t need this honor as he would continue to live life as a racer whether or not he was a member of the five-member 2020 class inducted next January.

The fact Stewart will headline the show serves as a sign of ultimate respect to his incredible ability and his deep passion that has driven his highest of highs and lowest of lows. Joining him in the Class of 2020 are drivers Buddy Baker and Bobby Labonte, crew chief and engine builder Waddell Wilson, and team owner Joe Gibbs (also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame).

Voters couldn’t ignore Stewart's numbers: 49 victories (14th all-time) over an 18-year NASCAR Cup Series career that included top-10s in nearly half (308) of his 618 starts. He won three Cup titles, two driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and one for driving for the team he co-owns, Stewart-Haas Racing.

Tony Stewart (14) is introduced before before his final NASCAR Cup Series race -- the 2016 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Yes, plenty of situations could have given voters second thoughts on Stewart. Some viewed his periodic outbursts and his public tongue-lashings as a refreshing no-holds-barred middle finger to the establishment that makes race-car drivers the grass roots heroes they are. Others would view the sparring with media and series officials as sideshows reeking of unprofessionalism and immaturity.

Those emotional overflows often came when he felt the situation challenged his love of racing, either hindering his ability for a good outcome or amid frustrations that the series created rules that didn’t do racing justice.

“Three championships, almost 50 wins, and it wasn’t just that that — it was the way he did it, the way he was with the fans and the media and what he’s still doing today, still driving dirt tracks,” said 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Gordon. “If there is ever a modern day A.J. Foyt, that to me is Tony."

But the numbers go beyond the wins and championships.

In 2009, Stewart was given 50 percent of what was then Haas CNC Racing with the charge to bring in his people to run the organization, land sponsorship, hire quality drivers and attract dedicated employees. A 150-employee two-car Stewart-Haas Racing team in his first year has grown to nearly 400 employees with 51 Cup wins and two Cup titles.

Those employees came to SHR because they wanted to work for a racer who cares about winning, willing to go as far as possible for performance while also not emptying the wallet.

He has opened that wallet several times. Stewart also owns a racing series (the All-Star Circuit of Champions) and race tracks, including the famed Eldora Speedway, which hosts an annual NASCAR Truck Series race. He bought the sprint-car series to keep it from splintering into separate series. He bought the track he loves because the previous owner trusted Stewart would be true to the dirt-track foundation. Cheap concession prices remain while Stewart, at times, can be seen helping prepare the track.

Stewart watched the announcement from an office in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and is scheduled to race sprint cars Friday through Monday in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. He has plans to race 99 times this year.

"I’m sleeping in the hauler this weekend because all the hotel rooms are booked this weekend,” Stewart said. "It’s just weird because I’m still in race-car driver mode and then you have a moment and a day like today where you’re getting inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and it seems like the first chapter hasn’t stopped yet or the second chapter to begin.

“They’re overlapping chapters. I guess that’s kind of what just makes it seem so unreal at this point. That’s part of what’s making it fun, too."

Stewart will always be saddled with the memories of the 2014 death of Kevin Ward Jr. and allegations that he tried to scare Ward (who had walked on the track after he crashed while battling Stewart) and accidentally hit the young driver. Stewart, who was never criminally charged, has repeatedly said he didn’t even know who it was on the track and he was trying to steer away from the person in the split-second he had to react.

That Stewart was even racing that night says everything about him. Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park has no glitz nor glamour, but it has a dirt oval and was just about an hour’s drive from Watkins Glen International, which hosts one the Cup Series annual road-course races. No superstar would race there without loving the sport; the only gain from racing there was satisfying the need for speed and competition at the rawest of levels.

Few doubt that Stewart will continue competing in sprint cars at various remote outposts for as long as he can work the pedals and steer the wheel. He won’t always serve as NASCAR’s best ambassador – his mind and his mouth will only let him sugarcoat things so much – but much like this Hall of Fame honor represents, how he conducts his racing life, in the seat and out of it, will speak the loudest.

Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.