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Tony Stewart at 500: A fan's view

Tony Stewart makes his 500th-career start this weekend in Miami, and SB Nation Atlanta's NASCAR contributor reflects on life as a die-hard fan of the man known to the NASCAR Nation as Smoke.

Tyler Barrick

As SB Nation Atlanta's NASCAR contributor, I'm in the unique position of covering an entire racing series, rather than a single Atlanta or Georgia-based team. I enjoy it greatly, and I feel like I am very fair about not letting my personal allegiances show. It helps that I respect all the drivers and - most of the time - love them all for the entertainment they provide me on a weekly basis for 10 months out of a year. Still, like any racing fan - and that's what I am, a racing fan who's blessed to be able to write about the sport I love - I have my own favorite driver, the one I want to see win every week. That driver is three-time champ Tony Stewart, and with SBN Atlanta bossman Kris Willis' blessing, here is a fan-driven story about Stewart ahead of his 500th Sprint Cup start this Sunday at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Early in a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver's career, it seems there is always a counter on them. "This guy is making his fifth start, that guy has only run eight races," and so on. After a while, though, the counting stops and the races just seem to run together as the driver's career progresses along. He hits milestone starts - like his 500th - along the way, however, and it is always fun to think about how long that driver has been around and what he's accomplished and what is left to accomplish.

Particularly when it's your driver.

I've been a Tony Stewart fan since the Month of May in 1998. I capitalized the word "Month" there because it is an event all its own, the practice, qualifying, and other festivities leading up to the Indianapolis 500. I'd heard of Stewart before that month, but between reading an article about him in a magazine I'd only gotten because it had Bill Elliott on the cover and all the interviews he did with ESPN leading up to the race, something clicked. I found my new racing hero.

It's neat to be able to say you were a fan of a Sprint Cup superstar, a Sprint Cup champion, before he even ran his first race in the division. I'm far from alone with Stewart - his exploits in open wheel cars had already made him a huge star in his native Midwest and elsewhere long before the 1999 Daytona 500, or the '98 Month of May for that matter - but I like being able to say that I beat a lot of my fellow Stewart fans (the ones who latched onto him as a rookie) to the bandwagon by a year.

Looking back, I feel very fortunate that it was Stewart whom I picked as my first "true" favorite racer since Davey Allison's death in 1993. He has had a tremendous Sprint Cup career - three championships and 47 wins so far - and he has also established himself as perhaps the greatest pure racer of his generation with his successes in various other types of race cars.

It has been quite a ride over the last 499 Sprint Cup races, rooting for the man known as "Smoke." There have been plenty of highs and hopefully plenty more to come, but there have also been some points where proudly displaying support of the often mercurial Stewart has led to some headaches. Make no mistake, I've never once thought of hopping off the train and finding someone else - someone easier - to root for, but constantly bickering with other fans any time he let his temper get the best of him or insulted a reporter or didn't sign an autograph has been very annoying at times.

The 2004 season was perhaps most frustrating. Stewart went through a stretch of races where he seemed to always be in the middle of some sort of controversy with another driver. That would put that driver's fan base at war with those of us on Stewart's side, all the while the rest of the fans seemed to be on board with the Darrell Waltrip-led witch-hunt calling for Stewart's suspension every other week.

It eventually became comical and actually kind of fun. For instance, constantly battling - and belittling - the teenage girls who didn't know an axle from a tailpipe but claimed to have fallen in love with racing thanks to rosy-cheeked rookie Kasey Kahne became and has remained a favorite pastime of mine.

Those frustrations in 2004 are far and away overshadowed by the good times I've enjoyed a Stewart fan, though. The magical stretches during the summer of 2005 and the fall of 2011 stand atop the list.

Stewart began both stretches in a long winless spell, then ripped off five wins seemingly from out of nowhere to ascend to the top of the standings. In '05, those wins included his long-awaited, dream-come-true victory at Indianapolis and his first points-paying triumph at Daytona. Though he relinquished the point lead briefly in the Chase, he was on top when it counted at the end in Homestead.

Everyone remembers last year's Chase performance, where Stewart won half the races and tied Carl Edwards on points. His magical night in Miami a year ago that capped off an unlikely third championship run remains downright chill-inducing. Even if that title - his 12th in a variety of race cars - winds up being his last, the fashion in which he won it has provided enough fond memories to last a lifetime.

On the flipside, the Daytona 500 has nearly managed to drive me to drinking. It seems he went to the "Earnhardt and Waltrip Institute of Every Way on Earth To Lose the Great American Race." Those two legends eventually won the 500, as has every other driver with at least three championships beside his name. The day Tony finally wins that race, I'm liable to start a one-man riot in downtown Calhoun, GA that puts Detroit or Los Angeles after one of their teams' championships to shame.

As Stewart embarks on his 500th Sprint Cup start and concludes his 14th season at NASCAR's highest level, it is likely that he has already run more races than remain in his Hall of Fame career in top-tier stock car racing. Still, plenty remains to be accomplished. He is just three victories away from his 50th, one of many "magic milestones" in our sport, and he lacks wins at only Darlington and Kentucky before being able to lay claim to winning on all 23 active Sprint Cup venues.

No matter what he accomplishes from this point forward, though, it has already been a heck of a ride for this fan.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.