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CHARLOTTE — How do you turn down the most powerful team owner in NASCAR?
One of the most talented drivers in NASCAR once did — and a great friendship still eventually blossomed from it.
When Tony Stewart was a hot prospect in the IndyCar Series, Rick Hendrick (whose Hendrick Motorsports team was in the midst of four consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 1995-98) offered him a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series for the 1997 season.
Stewart (who had run eight races in NASCAR's second-tier series) declined because he felt his experience didn't merit the ride.
"I just didn't want to make that move too soon and not succeed and lose that opportunity," Stewart said. "As hard as it was, I thanked him and didn't accept that offer. I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. It's the first time I ever was in a situation I had to turn somebody down."
It might have turned out for the best. Stewart won the 1997 IndyCar championship, joined Joe Gibbs Racing and won two Cup titles.
When he decided to buy into Stewart-Haas Racing two years ago, the deal united him with Hendrick, who already supplied the team's chassis and engines and warmly welcomed Stewart into the fold of his Chevrolet organization.
"I think Rick understood what my theory was and why I did it," said Stewart, who won in his first start in a Hendrick car (a Nationwide race at Daytona in February 2009). "In the long run, he's always respected that. In a certain degree, it's made full circle. It's nice to be working with him. It's something that's been a long time coming."
"We're about as close as you can get now," Hendrick said during a charity news conference Wednesday at Levine Children's Hospital, where Stewart donated $50,000 in Hendrick's name. "He's a good friend and great ambassador to the sport. His actions off the track speak for how big his heart is."
Their rapport, though, is more about playful barbs than altruistic gestures. Before leaving the hospital Wednesday, Stewart ribbed Hendrick about bringing Ben and Jerry along to his next visit to the gym. Stewart, who has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup the past two seasons since becoming a driver-owner and is ranked seventh entering Sunday's FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway, laughs that Hendrick often calls to give him "a bunch of crap."
"There's hardly a conversation we have where we're not laughing," he said. "A lot of the conversations are like father-son, and my father and I give each other a hard time like Rick and I do. I like that. For how business-oriented our relationship is, we find a way to make it fun, too."