Tony Stewart Tackles Two Races Memorial Day Weekend Stewart and Home Depot Partner to Run Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 As if 34 races on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series' calendar weren't daunting enough for a first-year driver, Tony Stewart went and...
Tony Stewart Tackles Two Races Memorial Day Weekend Stewart and Home Depot Partner to Run Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600
As if 34 races on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series' calendar weren't daunting enough for a first-year driver, Tony Stewart went and added the country's most popular open-wheel race to his schedule - the Indianapolis 500. Not only does he plan to race 500 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) on May 30 before a crowd of more than 300,000 and a television audience of millions, Stewart will run his #20 Home Depot Pontiac in a 600-mile NASCAR race in Charlotte, N.C. that evening. If successful, Stewart will become the first driver in history to complete all 1,100 miles of the two races on the same day.
It's true that Stewart's performance during the first half of the season belies the yellow stripe that runs across the rear panel of his #20 Home Depot stock car, but then he's not your ordinary rookie. A former Indy Racing League (IRL) champion, Stewart has driven everything from Go-Karts to Midgets, Sprint cars to Indy Cars with a few modifieds and dirt late models thrown in for good measure. With each progression he has demonstrated an innate talent for maximizing the car's potential as well as his own. Case in point, Stewart is the only driver to win three United States Auto Club (USAC) major division championships in one year - Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown - earning him the "Triple Crown" in 1995. "I think a race car driver is a race car driver and a good driver can drive anything," said Stewart. "Once you leave pit road, you remember which car you're in."
Stewart moved to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series full time this year as teammate of Bobby Labonte in the Joe Gibbs Racing organization. He shot to the front of the pack - literally - at the season-opening Daytona 500, starting his Home Depot Pontiac alongside Jeff Gordon on the outside front row. Since then, Stewart's on-track performance rivals that of any first-year driver in recent history. Still, competing in 1,100 miles of racing in a ten-hour period is awesome by any standard and a real test of Stewart's racing prowess. To prepare for his double duty Memorial Day Weekend, Stewart is squeezing practice and qualifying at IMS in-between his regular Winston Cup obligations. In all, Stewart will make five trips to Indianapolis in preparation for the Indy 500, and he'll be in a race car 25 days during the month of May - including one day of just sitting in the Indy car to have the seat and pedals fitted. All this back and forth is bound to take its toll were it not for careful planning on the part of Stewart and Winston Cup team owner Joe Gibbs. Earlier in the season, Gibbs hired a personal trainer to work with his race teams two days a week at the shop in Huntersville, N.C. The trainer has been coaching Stewart and the #20 Home Depot crew members on their overall workout routines since the beginning of the season. According to Stewart, the hard work is paying off on the track.
"Winston Cup is a whole new ball game when it comes to the physical requirements on the driver. I went from running 1,500-pound open-cockpit Indy cars a dozen times a season to racing 3,400-pound stockcars every weekend. The biggest adjustment has been the heat and I'm not talking about my feet!," jokes Stewart. "It gets really hot in a Cup car and the heat takes a lot out of you."
To prepare Stewart for the 110-degree cockpit temperatures that are normal in Winston Cup racing, his trainer set up a stationary bike inside the sauna at Gibbs Racing to simulate race conditions. A skeptical Stewart donned his helmet and slowly worked his way up from 15-minute sessions to hour-long rides in the makeshift cockpit. "I thought he was crazy at first but it's really worked to improve my stamina. I feel stronger and more alert throughout a race and I'm definitely not as drained afterward. The strength training has made a world of difference too. I'm not wrestling with the car as much and it's helped my reflexes."
If all goes as planned on May 30, the biggest obstacle Stewart will face will be himself. Patience and endurance are key to logging 1,100 pedal-to-the metal miles in one day, especially if you are there to win. "One of the first things I did after deciding to run Indy is get together with John Andretti. Only two drivers have attempted to run both of these races and John came closest to actually doing it," said Stewart. Andretti's 1994 dual-performance bid ended in a wreck at Charlotte Motor Speedway on lap 220. Robbie Gordon's 1997 attempt was foiled by rain at IMS.
"I'll be racing to win so there's even more reason for me to prepare myself as much as possible both mentally and physically. I've got to keep a level head and I've got to make sure my body holds up," explained Stewart.
Over the last month, Stewart's workout regime has included more strength-training exercises along with his regular cardiovascular training. He also has been working to improve his diet, eating lighter, healthier meals in the hopes of shedding a pound or two before the big day. "I'll lose a lot of fluid the week leading up to the two races because of my schedule and all of the travel, but I'm trying to get as fit as possible beforehand," said Stewart. "My trainer has me scheduled to load up on the carbohydrates starting about two weeks out to help with my endurance."
This will be Stewart's fourth Indy 500 start and his first as both driver and team co-owner. Stewart is partnering with Larry Curry, his former IRL crew chief, to field the orange and white #22 Home Depot Indy car. Together, Stewart and Curry logged three wins, nine poles and 10 top-five finishes in their three years together in the IRL. Stewart recorded his best Indy 500 finish in 1997 - the same year he won the series' title - ending fifth after leading 64 laps. "I grew up in Indiana and the Indy 500 is in my blood," said Stewart. "Winning Indy has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I think I've got my best shot this time. Larry and I have been practicing downing our milk for a month now."
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