Indianapolis: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Home Bittersweet Home ATLANTA (July 28, 2005) - Having grown up in the towns of Rushville and Columbus, Ind., - 45 minutes from the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway - and having raced in all the feeder series that should bring...

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ATLANTA (July 28, 2005) - Having grown up in the towns of Rushville and Columbus, Ind., - 45 minutes from the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway - and having raced in all the feeder series that should bring a successful young racer to the starting grid of the Indianapolis 500, the 2.5-mile oval known as the Brickyard is the cornerstone of Tony Stewart's career. From the time he first strapped himself behind the wheel of a go-kart at age seven in nearby Westport, Ind., Stewart's eyes have been set on Indy.

Now at age 34, Stewart has competed in the Indianapolis 500 five times, while Aug. 7 will mark his seventh Allstate 400 at The Brickyard start. Stewart feels at home at Indy, but that home has shown Stewart some tough love over the years.

He has led a total of 122 laps in his five Indy 500 starts, but victory has eluded Stewart, at times, quite cruelly. After leading the first 32 laps as an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1996, a faulty pop-off valve eventually ended Stewart's day on lap 82. In the 1998 Indy 500, Stewart's engine grenaded after passing Greg Ray for the lead on lap 21.

His NASCAR tenure at Indy hasn't been any kinder. In the 2001 Brickyard 400, Stewart was a threat to win for all but the last 23 laps. There, Stewart glanced off the turn two wall as he raced with Dale Jarrett toward the lead. "I was just trying too hard," admitted Stewart. In 2002, he scored the pole with a new track record and led four times for 43 laps before finishing a disappointing 12th. And in 2003 victory was again in Stewart's sights as he led three times for 60 laps, but a slow final pit stop and an ill-timed caution late in the race combined to give the Indiana native another 12th place result.

Despite the pain of those setbacks, Stewart keeps coming back to the Brickyard. He has to. He's logged too many miles and come too close to victory to not want an Indy win more than the next guy. And in the 12th running of the Brickyard 400 - a span of time that has seen Stewart go from aspiring USAC driver to Cup series champion - his desire to win remains omnipotent.

What does racing at Indy mean to you?

"Take the one thing in your life that you're the most passionate about and you'll have a good understanding of what Indy means to me. There's at least something in everybody's life that they're very passionate about, and for me that's winning at the Brickyard. The fact that it comes around only once a year is the hard part. It's not like everyday you can work to accomplish that goal. I only have one chance out of every 365 days to win at Indy."

What would a win at Indy mean to you?

"It hasn't changed. It's the same answer I've been giving since I first came to Indy. If I could give away my championship and just get one win at Indy, I would do it in a heartbeat. Two years ago we led a lot of laps and just fell off the pace there at the end. I don't care if I lead one lap at Indy - just as long as it's the right one. That's how much it means to me."

Because of your passion for Indy, can you put too much pressure on yourself going into the Brickyard?

"You can let it monopolize your mind, but at the same time, that has also helped me get to this level of my career. Preparing and focusing on the objectives is what's gotten me to where I am today. As every year goes by you learn how to deal with situations better and you learn to prepare better, but that can also put you in a situation where you can over-prepare. What we've tried to do this year is just simplify things and go back to the basics of why we got here, and that's to have fun."

A lot of people have talked about how you seem more relaxed this year and that you're doing just what you set out to do this year - have fun. How much of your relaxed attitude can be attributed to you moving back to Columbus?

"It's been huge for me. That's probably been one of the biggest factors that's helped me be a lot more relaxed this year is just being back home. I'm in the same house I was raised in from the time I was 10 months old. The neighbors on both sides and across the street and behind me are all the same neighbors. They're just older now. They don't treat me any differently than they did when I was a kid. I'm still the kid who used to hit the baseball through their windows. So, I just don't hit the ball through the windows anymore. We kind of went through a period when I was home this winter. In the past, I had not gone out a lot while I was in town. I just stayed around home and around my friends. But I started going out more and went through a period where it was a lot of hassle where people would say, 'Hey, sign this,' and ask questions about racing. Now, I've been there long enough that I'm just one of the guys to most of the people I'm around. Even when we're out, there aren't a lot of people that ask for anything anymore. I'm settled in and they let me be me. The newspaper in Columbus has done a really good job of informing people that's why I come home. It's because I want to relax and not feel like I'm at work. It's paid off huge. It's been a pleasant experience and makes me look forward to going home after the weekends."

Despite having a more relaxed attitude and noticeably more fun, it seems as though you always have to answer questions about negative things that happened years ago. You've handled it well, but doesn't it get old?

"Yeah, it does. The single biggest thing that drives me nuts is having to answer questions about things that happened a year ago or two or three or four years ago. There's nothing I can do about those previous years. There is nothing I can do to erase it. There is nothing I can do to change it. All I can do is control what happens from this moment forward. So when people keep bringing up all the things you've done in the past, it drives you nuts. There is not a thing I can do about it. But I've had a better year this year. I haven't annoyed everybody. I've tried to be a little better with the photographers and the media and the fans. Everybody has kind of noticed that. Still, every week somebody's got something in there about 'Terrible Tony' and this or that. Now what am I doing wrong? That's the stuff that gets annoying. The rest of it all falls into place. But I am enjoying everything a lot more - both professionally and personally."

In the past six races coming into the Brickyard, you have an average finish of third, thanks in large part to three wins. What has made the #20 team so strong of late?

"Early in the year, we went back to basics with everything. There is so much pressure to perform. It takes its toll on all of us at some point along the line. It's probably affected me more than anybody. It's affected me a bunch and trickled down through the team. We all started doing this because we had fun doing it. This is what we signed up for, whether we like it or not or agree with everything that happens. That's been the single biggest change of the year. It wasn't personnel or equipment. It was just the attitude of our whole race team that's made the difference. We haven't reinvented the wheel, but we did reinvent our attitudes."

After growing up in Indiana and racing throughout Indiana, what's it like to go into the Brickyard not only as a sentimental favorite, but also as a legitimate favorite to win?

"I've been a sentimental favorite and a legitimate favorite to win there before, but I've always come up short. It really doesn't mean anything to me until that last lap happens. If The Home Depot Chevrolet is leading on that last lap, then it'll mean a lot. It's good to know that people have the confidence in you and your team that you're good enough to win there. But there's just something about Indy. It's difficult to win there. It's probably one of the hardest places to win a race. Just because you're a favorite doesn't mean it's an automatically done deal."

Because you feel like you've always come up short at Indy, do you feel like the race track owes you anything?

"No race track ever owes you anything. I've heard that from drivers, but Michael Andretti was the one who straightened a lot of people out on that one. He said that all those years that he led laps at Indy 500s and didn't win - it's a place that you have to earn victories. They're not given to you. So no, Indy doesn't owe me anything."

Explain a lap around Indy.

"You're lifting and braking into (turn) one and into (turn) three. In the short chutes you're back on the gas wide-open. All you do when you're going into (turns) two and four is just lift a little bit. You let the car roll - you really don't have to use the brakes there. It's not a big, demanding track on brakes, but it is a momentum race track and a rhythm race track. You have to get into a rhythm early, and once you get into that rhythm it seems to make things a lot easier for you."

Can you compare a lap around Indy in an Indy car to a lap around Indy in a stock car?

"In an Indy car you just don't lift - if the car's right. But in a stock car, even if it's right, you've got to lift and you've got to brake for at least two of the corners. With the other two corners, you just lift, basically. It's a challenging track in a Cup car. It's a challenging track in an Indy car too, but if you can get it right in an Indy car then you can run it wide-open around there, and that's one less variable you've got to worry about when it comes to getting around the race track."

How important is the team in giving you a Home Depot Chevrolet that's fast at Indy?

"Everybody has a part at Indianapolis because the track is a good combination of raw horsepower and mechanical balance. Every aspect of the team plays a bigger part at Indy versus when we go to Martinsville (Va.), where aerodynamics don't mean anything, or at Daytona (Fla.), where aerodynamics mean everything. Everybody has a role here. Indy is one of those tracks that challenges every aspect of your team."

NASCAR has been coming to the Brickyard for 12 years now. Do you remember how you felt as an aspiring open-wheel driver from Indiana when it was announced that stock cars would race on the hallowed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

"I was one of the 'old guard' who wasn't too excited when they said that stock cars would be at Indy, just because of the history of the place. But we've all adapted our attitudes toward it, because in addition to the Indianapolis 500 - which is what Indy has been all about for so many years - they have the Nextel Cup Series - the premiere racing series in the United States, and Formula 1 - probably the most recognized form of motorsports in the world. The speedway has brought all of the major racing series together at one great venue.

"A lot of times people are scared of change, but as the years have gone on people have not only accepted the changes that have gone on at the speedway, but appreciated them as well."

When you raced in USAC you had an eye pointed toward Indianapolis, but only in regard to running an Indy car. Now drivers running in USAC still seem to have their sights set on Indy, but it's in regard to running a stock car. What caused this change?

"Jeff Gordon was probably the biggest influence. He had a lot of success in USAC - won a lot of races. He wasn't just handed an opportunity in NASCAR. He earned his way down there. When he got the opportunity to go to NASCAR he opened up a lot of opportunities for drivers like myself. And the TV package that USAC had at the time with the Thursday Night Thunder Series on ESPN, it brought guys from all over the country because of the recognition that could be earned from running USAC. We had guys coming from Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Illinois to participate in USAC races because of Jeff's success and the opportunity that he had to come to NASCAR. Indy cars weren't an option at the time because unless you brought a big-dollar sponsor you weren't going to get a ride. When Jeff had his success down south, it boosted everybody's spirits and helped show everyone in USAC that it was a reality and that if they had the same kind of results that Jeff had on the track, then it could happen to them too."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Tony Stewart , Greg Ray , Michael Andretti