VEGAS VICTORY, TITLE WOULD FORM FITTING FAREWELL FOR STEWART LAS VEGAS, Sept. 28, 1998 -- Tony Stewart still hopes he can win his second straight Pep Boys Indy Racing League championship. But he's going to need lots of faith...
VEGAS VICTORY, TITLE WOULD FORM FITTING FAREWELL FOR STEWART
LAS VEGAS, Sept. 28, 1998 -- Tony Stewart still hopes he can win his second straight Pep Boys Indy Racing League championship.
But he's going to need lots of faith and plenty of charity in the final race, the Las Vegas 500K on Oct. 11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Stewart must have faith that his Glidden-Menards-Special Dallara/Aurora/Firestone will be the fastest in both qualifying and the race. That will earn the maximum 55 points for winning the PPG Pole and the race while also leading the most laps. And the charity must come from points leader Kenny Brack and runner-up Davey Hamilton in the form of lackluster qualifying performances and early-race departures.
It's a tall order.
Brack leads the series standings by 31 points over Hamilton and 41 points over Stewart heading into the season finale. That means if Brack finishes 15th or better, Stewart is out no matter what he does. If Brack falls out early, the duel between Stewart and Hamilton could go down to the final lap, just like last year at Las Vegas.
"I'm not going to hold much back," said Stewart, who captured the league's second championship by six points last year over Hamilton. "I know it can be done."
Stewart, from Columbus, Ind., entered a similar impossible-looking scenario three years ago and came out of the race as a season champion.
"I'm kind of in the same situation I was in '95 in the (USAC) Silver Crown series," he said.
"We went into the last race, there were three guys eligible to win. I was the third guy. Dave Darland and Jack Hewitt were the first two guys, and they were neck-and-neck. And the only way for me to beat them was if they finished out of the top 14, and I had to run in the top two. We ended up running second, and I won by two points."
The final race that year was at Sacramento, Calif., and Stewart trailed Darland, who only needed to place eighth to clinch the title, by 155 points. And if Darland dropped out, Hewitt had only to place ninth to claim the crown. Instead, Darland blew an engine on the 12th lap and went to the sidelines. Hewitt hit the wall on Lap 33 and was out. Stewart then passed Billy Boat, who has won the last four Pep Boys Indy Racing League poles, to take second and clinch the championship.
That title was added to the midget and sprint championships he also won in 1995 for an unprecedented USAC triple crown. This spectacular achievement propelled him into the Indy Racing League.
Las Vegas has not been particularly rewarding to Stewart. In the inaugural event in 1996, he qualified second. But an accident dropped him to a 21st-place finish. Last October, he took the green flag from the No. 3 spot and struggled to take the necessary 11th to win the title.
Also, Stewart has yet to lead a lap at Vegas. He comes into this year's event having led at least one lap in all 10 races this season.
So the incentives for Stewart are heavy. But there is one other motivating factor, too. This will be his final event as a full-time Pep Boys Indy Racing League driver for the foreseeable future. He will race in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series next season for car owner Joe Gibbs.
"You look at my whole racing career and my life, and this is like the ending of a chapter of a book," Stewart said.
"It's not a day I've really been looking forward to. I mean, I've really enjoyed being in the IRL, and we've had some success with three wins and a championship. We've had some pretty good luck and more than our share of bad luck in the series, too.
"Not running full time in this series is something I'm going to miss. If there were more days in a year and more hours in a day, I could do everything I wanted to. But unfortunately I had to give up something, and this is the series I had to give up."
Stewart said he definitely would like to win this final race. But he emphasizes that he has an overwhelming desire to win every race he enters and not because it's his farewell appearance.
"We'll go out there and do the best we can, and when the day's over with, it's over with," he said. "We can only do everything we can do to be competitive to win the race and just take what it gives us."
Stewart is one of three drivers to have competed in all 23 Indy Racing League events. He has led an astounding 1,502 laps, and his 10 straight races doing such this season is a series record. He's also won eight PPG Poles and through unusual circumstances started in that position in two others.
When he heads to NASCAR Winston Cup, Stewart will battle with another Hoosier open-wheel legend, Jeff Gordon. But unlike Gordon, Stewart will drive in the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400. He says he has some unfinished business to complete in the world's most famous auto race.
"If today was my last day in a race car, I would say I was successful," he said. "But I will not be completely fulfilled until I win the Indy 500."
Stewart has driven in three 500s with no victories. He finished 24th in 1996 but still earned the coveted Bank One Rookie of the Year Award after leading 44 laps. In 1997, he led 64 laps - more than any driver - and finished fifth. Last May, he was leading on Lap 22 when mechanical problems ended his day in 33rd and last place.
Fortunately, Stewart and NASCAR owner Gibbs agree on his future participation at Indy. Stewart will try to duplicate the double-duty task of racing both at Indianapolis and in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C., on the same day, a feat accomplished only by John Andretti.
"That's probably one of the aspects I like best," Stewart said about his change in racing direction. "Joe made sure I would run here. I appreciate that. I don't know who I'll be with, but it will be with a good team. I know that."
Stewart is driving for Gibbs in the NASCAR Busch Series this year on a limited basis as well as in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League for John Men ard. He is 25th in the Busch standings with three top-five finishes and 1,888 points. His earnings have been $201,865 to go with the $961,950 that he has won in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. His total Indy Racing League earnings for 23 races are $2,401,703.
Menard and Gibbs are very similar in their soft-spoken approach to racing, Stewart said.
"John is a very successful businessman, and racing is a lot of fun to him because it is his hobby," he said. "Joe is more serious because racing is his business.
"I'm going to miss this team, honestly," he said of Team Menard. "They're like family, I've been with them so long."