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January 31, 2020

Tony Stewart cherishes rollicking path to Hall of Fame induction, and he’s not done yet

The days leading up to NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Night had been a jumble.

Tony Stewart had sorted through mountains of memorabilia to get his enshrinement exhibit just so. He showed up on the Hall’s red carpet with the ink barely dry on his remarks, joking after a frenzied re-write that “two hours ago, I was still writing my damn speech.” And he showed up with the wrong dress clothes, realizing after leaving home that he’d grabbed a tuxedo instead of a suit. At least he bet the over.

SHOP: Hall of Fame gear

“Pretty much everything we’ve done has been some sort of minor catastrophe,” Stewart grinned. “All we’ve done is just laugh and have fun with this week.”

After cheerfully completing red-carpet media obligations, Stewart turned to his handlers to see what was next on the day’s itinerary, all while inching toward the fans clamoring for him on the other side of the velvet ropes. There wasn’t much air in his schedule for ad-libs, but the Hall’s planners relented: “Hey, it’s your night.”

NASCAR’s people’s champion can still draw a crowd, sharing his night with an especially interwoven Class of 2020 that included former teammate Bobby Labonte, his first Cup Series team owner in Joe Gibbs and two people who connected with him in his first baby steps into stock-car racing, Waddell Wilson and Buddy Baker. Stewart closed the night’s festivities with a heartfelt but rollicking speech full of his trademark sense of humorous mischief.

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For a man who typically keeps moving, it was a rare time to pause and reflect. Thank the Hall and their need for display-case mementos for that. Stewart and his inner circle went through storage units full of items collected through a lifetime in racing. The archives went all the way back, as far as the lawn tractor that he used to earn money mowing yards in his younger days.

“When we got in there, I realized I’m probably going to be on an episode of ‘Hoarders’ the next season,” Stewart cracked. “I’m one of those people that anything in racing, I can’t get rid of. … It was like Christmas without the fancy wrapping paper.”

Stewart has never been one for fancy frills, but savored the second part of Christmas, which came in a Thursday dinner with previous Hall inductees. Stewart and his contemporary Jeff Gordon have seven championships between them, but even Stewart admitted locking eyes with Gordon over their meal, being starstruck in the presence of stock-car racing greats who were enshrined before them.

“It’s surreal,” Stewart said. “You think of the sport being 70 years old and there’s 55 guys in this Hall. I can think of 55 guys off the top of my head right now that deserve to be in here, I feel like more than me. It’s truly an honor to be here. (Thursday) night’s dinner with the guys that are already in the Hall, to have that intimate dinner with those guys just really put it in perspective. I felt like a little kid who was tagging along.”

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Stewart enters the Hall of Fame with plenty to contribute, both in the way of personality and the sheer volume of his racing collection. But he won’t become a museum piece himself. He’s still writing the rest of his Hall of Fame story, both as a team owner, a track owner and a racer at the grassroots level.

Stewart says he has 72 sprint-car races on his 2020 schedule. The retirement rocking chair can wait.

At the end of a star-flecked night, Stewart was asked what he wanted to do with the rest of his career after his Hall induction. He didn’t pause.

“Everything. … I’m just not ready to stop yet. I mean, I just want to keep racing, go win as many races as I can, and it’ll be just like NASCAR. There’ll be a day that I know that it’s time to do something different and step away from it, but that day’s not today and I don’t see it on the horizon anytime soon.”

Even if it’s a jumble along the way.