CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Aug. 1, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...
CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Aug. 1, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, is going home. The Rushville, Ind., native returns to his roots this weekend for the seventh annual Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Rushville-born and Columbus, Ind.-raised Stewart knows, understands and appreciates the history that the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway holds. It was impossible for him to avoid it, racing USAC Sprints and Midgets throughout the state that held America's keystone racing venue.
The 2.5-mile oval was a magnet to Stewart as he progressed through USAC's ladder system, as an open-wheel racer's ultimate goal is the Indianapolis 500. Stewart realized that dream in 1996, the inaugural year of the Indy Racing League (IRL).
With the golden keys to his career in hand, Stewart unlocked what the fabled Brickyard had to offer. Despite his rookie status, he clicked off a lap at 235.837 mph and wound up on the pole for the 80th running of the Indianapolis 500. Engine woes sidelined what had been a dominant performance, as Stewart led 44 laps before retiring on lap 82. Nonetheless, Stewart still won the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year title.
The solid 1996 season lead to an even better 1997, where Stewart claimed the IRL championship and laid the foundation to his current ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. In addition to competing in the IRL full-time, Stewart drove five NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division races for Gibbs, as the 1998 season would have Stewart in 22 Busch Series events. The Busch races were to prepare Stewart for his Winston Cup assignment, where in 1999 he and Home Depot joined forces. The result was the Rookie of the Year award on the heels of the most dominant performance by a rookie in NASCAR history - three wins, two poles, 13 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes.
Stewart has continued his stellar Winston Cup performance in 2000. With three wins under his belt he is the winningest driver on the tour, a statistic that carries plenty of momentum heading into Stewart's home turf.
With the wave of momentum that you're riding right now with three wins in the last seven races and only one finish outside of the top-10, do you feel that this year's trip to Indy provides you with your best shot to win at Indy since you began racing there in 1996?
"I wouldn't say that it's my best shot if you lump in the 500. But for sure, this year I've got a better shot at the 400 than I did last year just because I've been through last year's race and I know how the track changes and I can anticipate how to run the race a little better this year. I think when you compare the Indy 500 to the Brickyard 400 you're comparing apples to oranges. Even though it's only 100 miles less in distance, the way the race runs is totally different from the way the 500 runs. We had really good cars every year at Indy, even last year when we had a decent car and finished in the top-10, despite having a bad day. The way the 400 runs is a little different there."
Lots of people talk about the benefit of momentum, but what does momentum actually mean?
"Everything's in sync, basically. When you hear people talk about momentum, it's normally about where they want to be and they keep staying there. When you get into situations like that, the guys are more relaxed, I'm more relaxed, the chemistry is better and everybody just works better together. When you're relaxed and happy about what's going on, you pay a lot more attention to details. That's my definition of momentum in this series."
Would a win in the Brickyard 400 mean as much to you as a win in the Indy 500?
"Those are two totally different things. Trust me, I want to win the Brickyard 400 really bad, but it won't take the place of winning the 500. It probably would if I never ran an Indy car there, but the fact that I've had good cars there and I've never won - I don't think anything's going to make up for that, other than one day finally winning that race. But it still would feel awfully good to win the Brickyard 400."
Indy looms larger than life. As a Hoosier, explain why Indy is so important and is held in such high regard to a racer?
"Just the history of the place and all the stories makes Indy what it is. Everybody in the world knows what Indy is. To just win there is a great accomplishment for any race car driver in any type of race car. I think that's why it means so much to so many people."
After growing up in Indiana and racing throughout Indiana, what's it like to go into the Brickyard 400 not only as a sentimental favorite, but 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 Pontiac 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."
Multi-race winner. Championship contender. Odds-on favorite for the Brickyard 400. Did you ever think that you would be in this position so soon?
"No, not really. I don't think anyone anticipates in the Cup series that you're going to have the success that we've had in a year-and-a-half already. It just shows what happens when you associate yourself with the right people. This Home Depot team is a great race team. I've got a great car owner, great crew chief, great guys to work on the car - those are the ingredients you need to be in this type of position. It's been a luxury for me to be here."
Explain a lap around Indy.
"You're lifting and braking into (turn) one and into (turn) three. In the short chutes you're back in 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."
What kinds of demands are made on your time when you go to Indy and how do you handle them?
"We basically need 36-hour days because everybody - local media wants you, we've got a lot of fans who we don't get a chance to see very often, lots of friends and family, you have a lot of activities at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park) that takes up all of your evenings - it's probably the busiest three days we have beside being at Daytona (Fla.) for the 500."
Are you going to be able to spend time with friends and family when you go to Indy?
"Unfortunately, we don't get to. But the good thing is that we have our fan club picnic on Sunday after the race in Indianapolis and that gives us a little bit of time. But our fan club keeps growing and I love to see more and more people show up at the picnic each year. But the hard thing is that when you get more people there you can't spend as much time with each person. But seeing that many people there having a good time means a lot to us."