Stewart headlines celebratory night for Joe Gibbs Racing at NASCAR Hall of Fame

NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Tony Stewart poses for pictures prior to the induction ceremony in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Tony Stewart, the throwback, blue-collar “People's Champion” of NASCAR, is once again the headline act.

Stewart was one of five inductees Friday night into the 11th class of NASCAR's Hall of Fame — a group that is essentially a celebration of Joe Gibbs Racing. The three-time NASCAR champion was inducted alongside Joe Gibbs, his former team owner, and Bobby Labonte, his first NASCAR teammate.

Also inducted was Waddell Wilson, an engine builder and crew chief who coincidentally was team manager of Stewart's first foray into NASCAR. The late Buddy Baker, who raced 33 years before transitioning into a broadcast role, was also inducted and Stewart has early ties to him, too.

Stewart first tried to drive a stock car at Buck Baker Driving School in Rockingham, N.C., and Buddy Baker turned up to watch “Smoke” turn laps at North Carolina Speedway.

The induction into the Hall of Fame has come with mixed emotions for Stewart, who has not slowed his racing one bit since retiring from NASCAR competition after the 2016 season. He runs sprint car races all over the country every week and squeezes in his responsibilities as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Eldora Speedway and the All Star Circuit of Champions. In fact, a day before his induction, Stewart announced a deal with FloSports to livestream all Eldora championship events and the All Star Circuit of Champions.

Stewart turns 49 this May and figures he's too young to be in a Hall of Fame, and hasn't been entirely comfortable with all the attention that has come with his induction. But as the calendar crept closer to the ceremony, Stewart has finally embraced this next chapter.

He stole the show at a Thursday night celebration of Gibbs, who hosted an event at a downtown Charlotte music factory for 1,000 people to celebrate his achievement. Gibbs, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996 for winning three Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins, was the man of honor at his event but briefly overshadowed by Stewart when he brought Stewart and Labonte to the stage.

Stewart lobbed joke after joke at his former boss, even blaming Gibbs for leading him into car ownership — a venture Stewart tongue-and-cheek claimed has kept him in debt.

He won two of his three championships driving for Gibbs, in 2002 and 2005. Stewart's third title, in 2011, was one of the greatest finales in NASCAR history as he beat Carl Edwards on a tie-breaker to become the first driver/owner to win the Cup title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Labonte won the first Cup title for the Gibbs organization in 2000 and joins brother Terry Labonte in the Hall of Fame. Bobby and Terry Labonte are one of two pairs of brothers — along with Kurt Busch and reigning NASCAR champion and Gibbs driver — to win Cup titles.

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