Tony Stewart has trouble sleeping.

The 51-year-old modern version of AJ Foyt, who started on pole in his first Indianapolis 500, started 2n/a in his first Daytona 500 and won an IRL title in his second season in America’s big open-wheel races in his fourth season there, can’t turn off his brain this week. The nerves, the excitement, the uncertainty make it feel like no other race start.

“I’m probably more at a disadvantage than ever getting into a new car,” Stewart said.

And yet, Stewart’s first two qualifying races on Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his NHRA debut in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Top Alcohol class could be the start of an all-new career of 10, 15, even 20 years. for the man who has few cars he hasn’t driven in his illustrious career. It’s not so much that Stewart feels external, or even internal, pressure to deliver results – although, as he put it, his McPhillips Racing team is a “go out and win races” – but the perfectionist in him behind everything he’s ever tried. just wants to do it right.

“The most pressure is probably on me, I don’t want to let them down this weekend,” Stewart said. “I’ve already started sleeping badly this week because I can’t shut my brain off at the end of the day. I try to learn something new, and not necessarily perfectly, but to do it precisely, correctly and consistently. That’s what I really like about this challenge this weekend – doing something new, figuring out how to do it, and doing it right. It’s something I’ve been very proud of throughout my career. »

Stewart is competing in this weekend’s NHRA Nevada Nationals, in what is effectively Top Fuel’s second-tier class, with a year of serious experience in the sport, having broken into the NHRA in 2022 owning only one car in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. It came after spending the past two years exploring the sport as a fan, along with his then-girlfriend, now wife Leah Pruett, a 10-time Top Fuel race winner who is now half an NHRA driver. from Tony Stewart Racing. alongside Funny Car driver Matt Hagan.

As Stewart said with a laugh on Tuesday, “I’m not used to being a very good spectator.” Attending these races early in their relationship to cheer Pruett on made Stewart comb the pits and ask questions of crew members and engineers.

Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett made it to the final round of the U.S. Nationals a year ago and sees her team as one of the first to enter this weekend.

The more he learned, the less he understood – and the more addicted he became. Shortly after his team made their debut in the 2022 season opener, he started putting the pieces in place to try and get in the car himself. Stewart earned his Top Fuel license after two multi-day sessions at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and has been putting it to work for the past few months on two test days at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway and Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania the day after the NHRA shutdowns.

During those two test days, Stewart said he completed a total of six runs on the Strip, including four on his first day of testing at Brainerd. While that may not seem like much, Stewart said it was all he could have hoped for. And yet, he has yet to face another car, which he will have to learn on the fly during his first qualifying run on Friday.

Something else he’s still getting used to? Not taking his eyes and focus off the start line as he attempts to accelerate to nearly 270mph for a run of around 5 seconds that could be down to milliseconds to determine his fate.

“It’s hard to explain, but you literally step on the gas, and you get to the 330-foot cone, and your brain is 100 feet behind the car,” he said. “Your hands and your rear feel everything the car is doing, but your brain is sitting there trying to process everything that’s going on in those 330 feet.

“(In other races) your eyes automatically go in the direction you’re going. In NHRA standing starts, when the lights change, you hit the gas, then try to look away from the tree (clear ) that’s off center and looking towards where you’re traveling in. It’s very unlike anything I’ve ever done.

As his debut drew closer in recent days, Stewart wondered if he was doing enough to prepare. Right now, he’s back in Indiana with Pruett in Arizona, and as the couple talked about the upcoming weekend, Stewart noticed his wife mentioning all the time she’s been spending rehearsing on her drive shaft to fine-tune its reaction time. Stewart, the hotshot rookie, couldn’t help but feel behind the times.

“I haven’t trained on anything because I don’t have any for me. She has it with her,” he said. “And then I asked him what I should do? I told her that I didn’t use any at all in the test sessions we had, and she replied, “I wouldn’t do anything different from what you did.” Don’t lose your rhythm or get out of sync.’”

May 23, 2019;  Concord, North Carolina, USA;  NASCAR Cup Series car owner Tony Stewart looks on in the garage during practice for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Pruett, Stewart said, has proven to be the perfect sounding board throughout this process – whether as a technical or mental coach as he strives to get the most out of the races this weekend. At a minimum, he knows he will get at least his three qualifying attempts, plus a point in the first knockout round. His comfort, success and joy in those 20 seconds of racing could determine the trajectory of Stewart’s final racing chapter. Noting that two of the sport’s greats, Ron Capps (57) and John Force (73), are several years older than Stewart, the racing legend said he thinks drag racing could be what kept him sharp in the sport as he continued to age.

Though he remains active in the cockpit of his Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) series as well as various sprint and midget car events, Stewart knows his days are numbered, increasingly calling it “a youngster’s game. man”. But with a quick reaction time, quick foot and keen eye for detail, Stewart said he could see himself racing in the NHRA for a decade or more if things go well this weekend.

In the time it takes to run a high-speed U-turn around the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he’ll have to figure out whether or not he wants to invest what could possibly be the span of his career. in the Cup in what is currently still an extremely foreign racing series.

Does he feel prepared? “Absolutely not.”

“I feel like I have a really good idea in my head of what to expect, but nothing prepares you better than being out there and having the chance to do it for the first time. At some point you have to jump into the water and learn to swim.