NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton opened the first card and couldn’t help but let a chuckle escape.
The man tasked with announcing the five individuals to the 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame Class, Helton saw the first name and didn’t hide his reaction. Tony Stewart, in his first year on the ballot, had received 88 percent of the votes and was to be announced first, and Helton took the opportunity to opine on Stewart before saying his name.
Stewart, said Helton (pictured at right above with Stewart in 2002), was “one of the most interesting characters in our sport, not just currently but in all-time.”
“That’s the politically correct way of him saying I was challenging,” said Stewart later during his formal press conference at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I wish he was still here, I want to know why he laughed. That’s what I want to know. What about that made him laugh? What was he thinking that he started laughing during that?”
The three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion being selected for the honor was not a surprise, and it was fitting that Helton was the man calling his name. Stewart and Helton have a deep history.
While he’s now vice chairman, Helton served as NASCAR president from 2000-15. The role made Helton the school principal when need be, meaning every time Stewart, the sport’s resident bad boy, was called to the hauler it was Helton waiting for him. And Stewart admits he took claim to sitting in the same seat every time.
But through the years, the relationship changed between Stewart and Helton changed. Helton wasn’t one to yell or raise his voice but like a parent, he let you know when you disappointed him and Stewart said that hurt much deeper than anything else.
“Mike has definitely been a father figure to me since I have been in the Cup Series,” Stewart said. “I got invited to spend a lot of time with him at first, and then I welcomed the opportunity to spend a lot of time with him after that. I’ve learned a lot of great lessons and things that didn’t just pertain to the sport. Things that have helped outside of the sport as well and I thank Mike for that.
“It was pretty cool to watch him read our name off today.”
Stewart called his selection very humbling and pointed out he has ties to each of the other four inductees. Following Stewart, it was owner Joe Gibbs called then Waddell Wilson, Buddy Baker, and Bobby Labonte.
Gibbs was Stewart’s car owner from 1999 through 2008. In that time, Stewart won 33 races and two championships. Labonte was not only Stewart’s teammate but “the guy that really was responsible for getting me to Joe Gibbs Racing.
“Even before that with Waddell Wilson, who was with Harry Rainer when I started in ’96 (in the Xfinity Series) … so the four of us going in at the same time there’s personal ties to all three of those guys. Even Buddy Baker, when I went through the Buck Baker (driving) School, Buddy was actually there one day and watched me run the car. It’s just really cool how the four guys that are going in with me I have a connection with at early parts of my career.”
Upon leaving Gibbs and joining forces with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart won 16 more times while earning another title (in 2011). With his third championship, Stewart became the first owner/driver to accomplish the feat since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
As an owner, Stewart has also put drivers like Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, and Clint Bowyer in victory lane. In 2014, Stewart was the championship-winning car owner for Harvick’s first series championship.
Stewart, who won on every style of track, retired at the end of the 2016 season after 618 starts, 49 career wins, and 15 poles. He also scored 11 Xfinity Series wins in 94 starts, and two Truck Series wins in six starts.
However, Stewart hasn’t given up racing completely as he travels often to compete in sprint car events.
“It’s a weird moment for me because it’s like chapters overlapping to a certain degree,” Stewart said of the Hall of Fame honor. “I’m so active and still so busy with my racing. When you’ve got 99 races – I’ve got four races this weekend. The most anybody’s going to run at Charlotte is two this weekend. But I’m racing Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday and riding in a trailer. I’m sleeping in the hauler this weekend because all the hotel rooms are booked.
“So, it’s just weird because I’m still in race car driver mode and then you have a day and moment like today where you’re getting inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and it seems like the first chapter hasn’t stopped yet for the second chapter to begin. They’re overlapping chapters. I guess that’s kind of what makes it seem to surreal at this point. That’s part of what’s making it fun, too.”