DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's early morning and the sun is just beginning to break through the early morning haze over Daytona International Speedway.
Just outside the garage area, Joe Gibbs is having a cup of coffee, relaxing in his motor home and talking about his newest driver, Tony Stewart, the rookie who will start on the outside of pole-sitter Jeff Gordon in Sunday's 41st annual Daytona 500. The former Washington Redskins football coach breaks into a happy grin.
"Getting Tony Stewart was a lot like recruiting a kid out of high school or college or working a trade in pro ball," Gibbs said, obviously relishing the process. "We'd put off going to a two-car team for a long time and when we finally decided to do it, we wanted Tony. But he had an existing contract with someone else. I had to go to work on a financial deal to get him out of that situation -- and once I knew I was able to do that, then I had to talk Tony into coming with me. It took about six weeks."
That six-week investment paid its first Winston Cup dividend Sunday, when Stewart and his Pontiac surprised almost everyone, including himself, by winning the outside pole with a run of 194.599 mph.
Together, he and Gordon, both 27, make up what is believed to be the youngest front row in Daytona 500 history.
And NASCAR has never had a rookie like him. Stewart, who grew up in Indiana racing every open wheel car he could get his hands on, was on the front row of the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, too. The next year, 1997, he won the Indy Racing League championship.
"I guess I'll be the answer to a trivia question down the road," Stewart said, answering the question: Who is the only rookie to start on the front row at both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500?
After agreeing to sign with Gibbs, Stewart spent last year in the Busch Grand National Series, getting a better understanding of the stock car, the Winston Cup version of which is a 3,400-pound monster that is about twice as heavy as anything he'd ever driven.
It was the first series in which he didn't win. And as he came to Daytona this week, he was still worried about whether he was ready to be a Winston Cup driver.
"I've been really nervous," he said. "You know, I've dreamed my whole life and worked my whole career to get here. Really. When I was a kid, I wanted to win the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of LeMans, the Knoxville Sprint Car Championship. My goal was to race in them all and eventually get to the biggest racing circuit in the world -- and this is it. This is where I want to call home for another 20 or 30 years."
He thought another year in the Busch series would do him good, "but Joe and Bobby [Labonte, his teammate] and Jimmy [Makar, crew chief] decided it was time to move up. If it wasn't, I'm sure they'd know.
"Still, I don't want to go out there and blow it. I don't want to go out there and ruin it. If I have a bad year, do stupid things, that'll be it. That'll stay with me my whole career."
Stewart's caution is one of the things Gibbs likes most about him.
"Racing every night, it's been his life," Gibbs said. "But to Tony's credit, he doesn't have this ego thing. Here's a guy who sat on the front row at Indy, won the IRL title, and he says to me that he's not ready to go into Winston Cup racing. Even at the end of last year, he said he wouldn't mind a second year in the Busch series. He doesn't want to ruin his reputation with the other drivers. I think he's a very mature guy."
Gibbs, the Hall of Fame coach who always had his football teams ready to play, says Stewart's reactions have shown a growth pattern on which he is building daily. Stewart didn't win a Busch race, but did finish in the top 10 five times and Gibbs said Stewart was in position to win four or five times.
"I think he is ready for this," said the owner. "I think he was ready to win that front row starting spot, but that he really didn't know it."
Stewart is one of six rookies vying for Winston Cup rookie of the year. It is the biggest and, perhaps, the most impressive rookie class since the class of 1993, the year that Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Kenny Wallace were in competition.
This time, it is Stewart; a personable Elliott Sadler in the famed Wood Brother's No. 21; Hollywood stunt man Stanton Barrett, who has appeared in the Batman movies and "90210" on television; Buckshot Jones, known for his aggressiveness in the Busch series; Dan Pardus, who has a Goody's Dash and ARCA series background; and Mike Harmon, a former ASA, All-Pro series competitor now driving for Virginia-based Junie Donlavey Racing.
Tomorrow they will face their first real test in the Twin 125-mile qualifiers. For Stewart, it will be an easier experience than it will for the others. As a member of the front row, Stewart is not racing for a qualifying position. His starting spot is set.
"It's a big relief," he said. "We're going to mount a piece of paper in the car beside me so I can write down everything I learn on each lap. I've spent a lot of time working my way up to this series. I'm planning to be patient. I need to gain knowledge and stay out of trouble and that's what I'm going to try to do. I don't want to be the guy on Sunday who causes the 20-car pile-up."
Pub Date: 2/10/99