Indianapolis: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Hoosier Daddy ATLANTA (Aug. 2, 2006) - After years of getting asked, "What would it feel like to win at Indy?," Tony Stewart can finally speak from experience. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing ...

TONY STEWART
Hoosier Daddy

ATLANTA (Aug. 2, 2006) - After years of getting asked, "What would it feel like to win at Indy?," Tony Stewart can finally speak from experience. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing secured the victory he had always coveted when he won last year's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

In addition to achieving the goal he had set for himself since he first wheeled a go-kart at age seven on a dirt track in Westport, Ind., Stewart's win at the Brickyard propelled him to first in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship point standings. For 14 of the next 15 weeks, Stewart was the point leader, including the final eight races where Stewart laid claim to his second Nextel Cup title following the season finale at Homestead (Fla.).

Stewart returns to the site of his greatest racing achievement this weekend at Indy, as the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard takes center stage on the 36-race NASCAR calendar. While the Columbus, Ind., native comes to Indy in a slightly different point position this year - 10th as opposed to second in 2005 - he is still very much a championship contender, something his two wins and series leading 923 laps led bear out.

And just as Indianapolis served as a springboard to his second NASCAR championship, Stewart plans to make similar use of this year's race. As the defending race winner and the defending series champion, no one will argue with Stewart's intentions.

What was it like to finally win at Indy?

"You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it. When I was in USAC trying to make a living as a race car driver, I drove a tow truck for a guy I raced Sprint cars against. I would drive down Georgetown toward 16th Street, parallel with the frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running 200 mph. I got a chance to do that, and finally, after years of trying to win, be it in Indy cars or stock cars, I got to know what it feels like, to see that view coming down the front straightaway, seeing the checkered flag and knowing that I was the first driver to cross the stripe, versus the second, third or fourth-place guy. I had wanted that moment for so long, and I finally got it."

Toward the end of last year's race, when victory was in sight but Kasey Kahne was still running fairly close behind you in second, you managed to spot your father, Nelson, on the balcony of your suite in turn two. How did you see him from inside your race car and what was he doing?

"For the last 50 laps, my dad never left the front rail of that thing. I thought he was going to fall over once, he was leaning so far over. Our suite is just over the retaining wall level, the first level of suites. It's right in my sight line. I didn't realize it was him until about halfway through the race. But it was unmistakable who he was when I got the lead.

"When I had the lead, I slipped once in (turn) two, and I when I came back the next lap, he's got his headset off and he's pointing to his head just like he did when I was eight years old racing go-karts, saying, 'Use your head.' I'm sitting there thinking, 'Dad, I got here for a reason, because I know what I'm doing. Just let me do my job.'

"That's what made it so gratifying and so special. There aren't very many places you can go and see your family every lap when you come around there. I was looking right at him when I went into turn two looking for my mark. It was just a natural sight line anyway.

"When we got that lead, I don't think dad or anyone else in that suite sat down the rest the race."

What was your first childhood memory of Indy?

"I came with my father. We were in some bus that had a luggage rack in the top of it. You had to get up at o-dark-30 to get on the bus to ride up to Indy for race day. They threw me up in the luggage rack. Somebody gave me a pillow and everybody started throwing their jackets on top of me to keep me warm. The ride home wasn't nearly as cool, because after a long day at the track, everybody but my dad and I were kind of rowdy. I was probably five years old. We sat in turns three and four. We were two rows up, right in the middle of the short chute. The hard thing was you could hardly see anything. The cars were so fast. They were a blur. But to see those cars under caution and smell the methanol fumes and everything, it was still pretty cool."

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 13 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."

It's been over a year since you moved out of Charlotte, N.C., and back home to Columbus, Ind. How relaxing is it to be home?

"It's been huge for me. It's probably been one of the biggest factors that's helped me be a lot more relaxed. 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. I've been back home long enough that I'm just one of the guys to most of the people I'm around. Even when I'm out, there aren't a lot of people who ask for anything. I'm settled in and they let me be me. It's paid off huge. It's been a pleasant experience and makes me look forward to going home after the weekends."

-jgr-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart