By David Morgan, Associate Editor
There have been many memorable moments in the history of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but a native Hoosier capturing the checkered flag on his native soil, makes the 2005 running of the race one of the most special in the event’s history.
In his first six starts at Indianapolis, Tony Stewart had come close to winning at the Brickyard, with two top-five finishes and a top-10 finish, but a win still eluded him. Stewart was on a roll when the 2005 edition of the Brickyard 400 came around, having won three races on the season, so the confidence was high that Stewart could get the job done at Indianapolis.
Stewart would only manage a 22nd place start in qualifying, meaning that he would have his work cut out for him in his quest for his first Brickyard win.
Elliott Sadler would lead the field to green from the pole with Jeremy Mayfield alongside, but Sadler would get the jump on the start, leading 38 of the first 39 laps in the race. Over the next 30 laps, the lead would swap from Sadler to Brian Vickers, Matt Kenseth, Casey Mears, and finally to Kasey Kahne, who would be a key player as the race played out.
Taking over the lead for the first time at lap 70, Kahne would lead 23 laps during his first stint at the front of the field before the caution flag flew at lap 93 for tire debris from Jason Leffler’s No. 11 car. Under caution, the lead would change hands again from Kahne to Sadler, Kyle Petty, Terry Labonte, and then to Brian Vickers, who won the race off of pit road amongst the leaders. Vickers was followed out of the pits by Sadler, Stewart, Kahne, and Kyle Busch.
When the race went back green at lap 97, Vickers got the jump, but Stewart moved to second and went in search of the race lead. Just three laps later, Stewart would make his move in Turn 4 on lap 100, diving low on Vickers and completing the pass to take over the lead for the first time. Over the next 34 laps, Stewart held onto the point for 33 of those laps before Kahne found his way back to the front with a pass in Turn 4 after several laps of hounding Stewart’s rear bumper.
Kahne and Stewart continued to show the way at the front of the field, with Stewart trying to find an opening to get back to the lead. With 15 laps to go, the final caution of the day flew after the championship leader, Jimmie Johnson, slammed the outside wall in Turn 4, causing heavy damage to his No. 48 car. Johnson was able to limp his car down pit road to his pit box, but just as he stopped a fire broke out under the hood, causing Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, to jump into action to pull his driver to safety.
“I’m fine. Man, that was hard. That’s by far the hardest hit I think I’ve taken,” a dazed Johnson said while sitting on pit wall. “Just blew a right front tire and away I went, head first. Thank God for the soft walls and the HANS device and everything. I’m okay. I’ll be scratching my head for the next day or two though.
“I don’t really remember coming from Turn 4 to the pits. I just kind of remember waking up on pit road and the guys were pulling me out of the car. It’s all good.”
Under that caution, both Kahne and Stewart elected to stay out and not come to pit road, setting up a showdown between the two over the final 11 laps of the race. Stewart was a man on a mission and saw his opportunity to get by Kahne for the lead as the two headed into Turn 2 on the first lap after the restart.
Though Kahne would try his best to get by Stewart over those final laps, the youngster was no match for Stewart, as Stewart would pull away to lead the rest of the way en route to finally breaking through at the Brickyard and claiming a win on his home turf.
After crossing the line with his fist pumping out of the window, Stewart made his way over to Turn 2 to celebrate with family and friends gathered there before heading over to the frontstretch to climb the fence, with his crew joining him in celebration.
Stewart climbed back down from the fence and laid on the wall, exhausted from the physical and emotional toll the race had taken.
“I wish I could put it into words,” Stewart said of finally winning at Indianapolis. “Today has been my entire life. I feel like crap right now, but in five minutes, I’m going to feel really good.”
With the momentum from his Indianapolis win, Stewart was able to take over the points lead, propelling himself onto a championship run, which resulted in his second NASCAR Cup Series title.