INDIANAPOLIS – Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will never, ever, be routine for Tony Stewart. Winning here, as he did for the second time in three years in Sunday’s Allstate 400, will never get old.
This historic track, less than 50 miles from Stewart’s hometown of Columbus, Ind., means too much. He first came here at age 5, riding in on the luggage rack of a bus for his first up-close look at cars whizzing by at impossible speeds and his first whiffs of the methanol that powered them.
Later, as he was living in Indianapolis and still working toward turning his talents into a racing career, Stewart got a job driving a wrecker. He’d pass by on 16th Street or Georgetown Road and dream of being on the other side of the massive grandstands.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, what would it be like to be 150 yards inside that fence, running 200 miles per hour?’” Stewart said.
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And then, he got that chance. He raced in the track’s showcase event, the Indianapolis 500, knowing he had the talent and the equipment to win. But he never did.
His career path veered to NASCAR, but he desire to win here never wavered. For six Nextel Cup seasons, he came here looking to fulfill what everyone kept telling him was his destiny. Each time, it was denied.
Finally, in 2005, Stewart won at Indianapolis. He passed his young friend Kasey Kahne with 11 laps remaining after Kahne had taken the lead from Stewart, threatening to turn a dream-come-true into yet another Indy heartache.
“The first one was just like taking the weight of the world off your shoulders,” Stewart said. “Today, we’re just happy.”
Happy because he was able to wrestle the lead back from another friend, Kevin Harvick, this time with just 10 laps to go after Harvick had passed Stewart for the lead following a restart 10 laps earlier.
“It wasn’t like my whole life depended on whether I could pass that one car in front of me,” Stewart said of the climactic tussle in front of a crowd well north of 200,000.
“It was like life or death for me two years ago. ...It’s never a ‘normal’ race for me here. But it was easier to put it in perspective and calm down and do what I needed to do.”
Stewart showed early that his No. 20 Chevrolet was strong, moving smartly from his 14th starting spot toward the front and taking the lead from pole-winner Reed Sorenson on Lap 17. He stayed well in front of early race mayhem – eight cautions in the first 90 laps of a 160-lap race – that took out would-be rivals like defending race champion Jimmie Johnson.
Stewart seemed to be in command after a final round of pit stops under green. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an engine problem while running in the top five to bring out the final yellow and set up a restart with 20 laps to go.
That was a problem, since Stewart’s car got tight going into the first turn after a restart.
Harvick, who’d powered his way into contention in the No. 29 Chevrolet, drove right through that open door on Lap 141 and took the lead.
No worries, Stewart thought. He’d run Harvick back down and passed him for the lead just before the final pit stop and was so confident he could do it again that at one point he was saying “Here, kitty, kitty,” over his radio after the green flew.
Harvick, though, was tougher to pass this time.
“I thought, ‘Man, this may or may not happen,’” Stewart said. But he didn’t panic, which he might have done had it not been for the win here in 2005.
Stewart finally timed his move and, on Lap 151, dove inside of Harvick in Turn 1 to try to reclaim the lead. He got by, but Harvick tried a crossover move off Turn 2 and nearly made it work. With the race on the line, the two cars banged fenders but Stewart won the drag race into Turn 3 and that was that.
Stewart said the contact was a mistake. He said he would never intentionally wreck Harvick, for whom he sometimes drives in the Busch Series, to win a here or elsewhere.
Still, Harvick’s car was damaged to a point where he slid backward to a seventh-place finish.
“It was just good racing until I got the left-front fender caved in,” Harvick said. “He didn’t quite give us enough room.”
Juan Pablo Montoya eventually pulled into second and stayed there for his best career finish on a NASCAR oval. Jeff Gordon was third, with Kyle Busch fourth.
After taking the checkered flag, Stewart pulled his car across the yard of bricks at the finish line and climbed out. Family and friends joined his Joe Gibbs Racing team members in climbing up the fence, kissing the bricks and generally having a big old time.
“This one is for everyone in the stands who pull for me and have to take the bull(expletive) from everyone else,” Stewart said.
Asked later if he’s concerned the use of that word would draw him some kind of NASCAR sanction – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was docked 25 points and fined when he used it after a win at Talladega in 2004 – Stewart wasn’t sweating it.
“It’s a little late to be concerned about it now, isn’t it?” he asked. “Whatever happens, they can’t take this away from me today.”
As he said it, he touched the silver winner’s trophy that he’d just earned. Now, he’s got two of them.