Michigan: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Post Pocono Perspective Leads to Michigan Motivation ATLANTA (June 12, 2008) -- A late-race pit road speeding penalty last Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway took a solid top-10 effort and turned it into a disappointing 35th-place...

TONY STEWART
Post Pocono Perspective Leads to Michigan Motivation

ATLANTA (June 12, 2008) -- A late-race pit road speeding penalty last Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway took a solid top-10 effort and turned it into a disappointing 35th-place finish for Tony Stewart. It was yet another setback in a string of setbacks, dating back to Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in early May, where Stewart had a fast race car but little to show for it.

At Darlington, Stewart had perhaps the best car he's ever had at the tricky 1.366-mile oval, but an accident on just the third lap of the 367-lap race relegated the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota to a 21st-place finish.

A rebound seemed possible in the next point-paying race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, where Stewart led four times for 23 laps and had a five-and-a-half second lead over second-place Kasey Kahne with less than three laps remaining. But a flat right front tire sent Stewart to the pits and dropped him to 18th when the checkered flag fell.

Stewart had another strong car at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, but had nowhere to go when a spinning Elliott Sadler careened into Stewart's path on just the 17th lap of the 400-lap race. The result: a 41st-place finish.

The most recent outcome at Pocono was, at the time, one blow too many.

But all of those heartbreaks became trivial when Stewart returned to his hometown of Columbus, Ind., late Sunday night after the race at Pocono. There, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and 1989 graduate of Columbus North High School saw his town under water. With people displaced and many homes severely damaged if not destroyed, Stewart quickly found a new perspective on true sorrow and disappointment.

On Monday, he visited the Columbus Public Works garage and thanked all those who had been working around the clock to help restore the town's infrastructure. He also stopped by his old junior high school, which the American Red Cross had converted into a shelter for flood evacuees. There, Stewart chatted with those who had to call the gymnasium floor their temporary home, and allowed them a short distraction from the headaches and worry that came when rising flood waters significantly altered their lives.

There were so many stories of hardship, Stewart wondered where to even start. The answer: Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.

Whatever Stewart's portion of the race winnings are in the LifeLock 400, he'll donate them to the American Red Cross in Columbus, with the money specified for flood assistance. Those wishing to join Stewart in helping those affected by the floods throughout Indiana can call 812-379-9551 or send checks payable to The American Red Cross, 931 Repp Drive, Columbus, IN 47201. If writing a check, write "Indiana Flood & Tornado Relief" on the memo line.

Always motivated by checkered flags and trophies since Stewart first began racing go-karts as an eight-year-old at the Columbus Fairgrounds, the 10-year Sprint Cup veteran has extra motivation this weekend at Michigan to end his unlucky streak and bring home the best finish possible.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

Your hometown of Columbus was ravaged by flooding earlier this week. How is the town coping?

"I went down on Monday and visited the guys at the city garage who have been working long hours trying to get the streets and everything cleaned up. I just went there and told all those guys, 'Thanks'. Most of those guys have been working 24-hour shifts getting everything cleaned up. We went by the junior high I used to go to, and that's where the Red Cross has their shelter put up, and I went in there to try to lift everybody's spirits up and just visit with everybody. Everybody is doing a really good job. They had 500 people in that shelter on Saturday night, and they were down to 35 people by Monday afternoon. It's just hard. A lot of these people have lost everything, and I just wanted to let them know we were thinking about them. Just spending a couple of minutes with them made them smile, and it seemed like it made them feel better."

How is your home in Columbus?

"My old house by the high school is good. The farm is just wet, absolutely saturated. You can't get on it. You can't do anything. And we're getting baby deer now. We have four little ones, and we've got them on the deck in a small pen because you can't get on the ground to put them anywhere. They're so young, you don't want them to get stuck."

After your recent racing disappointments at Darlington, Charlotte, Dover and Pocono, does what happened in Columbus put your bad days at the race track in perspective, because you have neighbors who are experiencing some truly bad days?

"Absolutely. We drove through some neighborhoods Monday night after we did our SIRIUS Satellite Radio show and saw places that still didn't have power and places where the water was still five or six feet high in their house, and that's not counting their basement. So, it kind of gave me the same feeling that I get when I visit Victory Junction Gang Camp. You realize that even on your worst day, you still have it pretty darn good. But unlike Victory Junction, there's no happiness at the end of the day. There are people who are sad because they've lost their homes. That's the hard part. You want to do something, but it's so widespread, you don't know what to do. I'm going to donate my portion of the race winnings from Michigan to the American Red Cross. I figure that's at least a start."

Even though you haven't had the finishes you would've liked of late, your World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series team with Donny Schatz has gone on a tear, winning three straight races. And Tony Stewart Racing alum, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., recently won at Pocono to collect his second career ARCA RE/MAX Series win and is currently leading the point standings, which is even more remarkable considering he's a rookie. When those guys are successful, does a sense of pride replace the sense of disappointment regarding your own racing fortunes?

"It's nice knowing that guys we've had and have in our system are doing well. Donny Schatz works hard and everybody on the 15 (Schatz) and the 20 car (Kraig Kinser) work really hard, and it's nice to see Donny get back on his winning streak like he has been the last two years. It's nice to know that we've found some things that have helped him out. Hoping we can do the same thing for Kraig and get him going.

"And Ricky is doing great too. You honestly don't know how they're going to do until you get 'em in something different like a stock car. But it was pretty apparent pretty early that he was taking to it right away. He's obviously with a great organization in Roush Fenway and he's learning. That's the great thing. The kid asks a lot of questions and learns. That's what it takes and he's doing a great job right now leading the point standings. Even though I have nothing to do with it now -- he's not in my organization anymore -- there is a sense of pride for me when a friend and someone you care about has success."

The Michigan race will run on Father's Day, which is appropriate considering how many fathers were instrumental in their son's racing careers. How influential was your dad, Nelson, in getting you where you are today? And what were some of the life lessons he taught you as a kid that you've taken with you today?

"He never let me settle for second. He didn't like it when we ran second, and he knew that I didn't like it when we ran second. If he saw that I wasn't giving 100 percent, then he was on me pretty hard about it. He pushed me to be better.

"He never pressured me to be the best race car driver in the world, but he did want me to be the best race car driver that I could be. He never compared me to anybody else. He expected that what I could do was what I could do. He never said that because this guy over here could do something, that I should be able to do it, too. He pushed me hard, but he was fair about it. That's probably why you see so much fire in me today, because he always wanted me to be the best that I could be.

"He's my dad, so obviously he's seen and done a lot of things that I haven't. He's given me some good advice over the years, but probably the best advice he ever gave me was to just remember the people who have helped me, because somewhere along the ladder that you're climbing up, you're eventually going to climb back down, and you're going to meet those people again sometime.

"I've watched the folks that he's dealt with in his career and in mine, and we're still friends with all the people that we've raced with in the past. We never felt like we were better than anybody else. We always kept those relationships, and we always treated those people the way they treated us."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Kasey Kahne , Donny Schatz , Kraig Kinser , Elliott Sadler , Ricky Stenhouse Jr.