Tony Stewart making final start at Richmond, site of first Sprint Cup win

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There once was a time when Tony Stewart was just Tony Stewart.

Back before “Smoke” came along.

Years before the three Sprint Cup championships, the 49 wins, the notorious Bristol helmet toss and garage area driver confrontations, Stewart was a NASCAR rookie.

Though your memories of it may be fuzzy, that time was 17 years ago.

And 17 years ago this week in 1999, Stewart earned his first Sprint Cup win at Richmond International Raceway, or “The Action Track.”

The race was the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400, the 25th points event of the season, held on Sept. 11, 1999.

That week, the No. 1 movie at the box office was the supernatural horror film Stigmata starring Patricia Arquette, which ended a six-week reign by The Sixth Sense.

The song at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 was “Bailamos” by Enrique Iglesias.

In Richmond, Stewart entered the race fifth in points, behind Jeff Gordon and ahead of Jeff Burton, who had won the 50th Southern 500 the week before.

Up until that point, Stewart had been begging for a win, especially at a short track. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had started from the pole at Bristol two races earlier and led 225 laps before finishing fifth. He’d led 118 laps at Loudon and finished 10th and early in the season at Dover led 127 laps and finished fourth.

At the first Richmond race that season, Stewart started 30th and finished 15th.

On Sept. 11, Stewart started on the outside pole, his fifth front-row start of the season. On the pole was Mike Skinner, who earned six poles in his Sprint Cup career.

Also in the field was Dale Earnhardt Jr., making his fourth of five Cup starts that season.

Stewart and Skinner swapped the lead twice in the first four laps before Stewart took it over for the next 25.

Stewart’s JGR teammate, Bobby Labonte, would lead for three laps until Stewart took it back on Lap 33  and led for 138 laps.

The No. 20 would lead twice more. The last stretch began on Lap 257 when Stewart assumed the lead from Jeff Gordon, then just a one-time winner at RIR.

Gordon would drop out on Lap 311 with a transmission issue. Stewart would lead the final 144 laps.

With Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett on the call for ESPN, Stewart, at 28, claimed his first Sprint Cup win.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8h8BqPfHGwE%5D

Stewart was the first first-time winner in Sprint Cup since Jeremy Mayfield at Pocono Raceway in June 1998. More importantly, he was the first rookie to win since Davey Allison at Dover International Speedway in 1987.

Finishing out the top five was Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin and Kenny Irwin Jr.

After emerging from his car, Stewart embraced crew chief Greg Zipadelli and Stewart’s fiance at the time, Krista Dwyer.

“I wish I knew what to say, I mean you plan all your life for something like this,” Stewart said. “This is the first time I’ve been speechless, everybody knows I like to talk. This is for Davey Allison, this is the mark I had to shoot for all year. Donnie Allison and his family have been great to me this year. I’m out of breath, that’s a lot of stuff to talk about after winning a race.”

The native of Columbus, Indiana, would win two more times in 1999, consecutive races at Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart would also win twice more at RIR, the last victory coming in 2002.

On Saturday, in the Federated Auto Parts 400 on NBCSN, Stewart will make his 35th and final start at the .750-mile track.

“I’ve always felt like Richmond was the ultimate drivers’ track,” Stewart said in a press release. “When we didn’t have all the downforce like we do now, you used to literally move around the racetrack. You didn’t get stuck in one groove. You could be fast there running two or three different ways, using three different lines. You could do what you needed to do to complement your car or not hurt it. That’s what I have always liked about it. It’s always going to be my favorite track.”