By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
As a young boy growing up in Indiana with aspirations of being a racecar driver, no ground was more sacred than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sunday, Tony Stewart likely completed his final race ever at the 2.5-mile speedway.
Stewart began his racing career with an ultimate goal of drinking the milk after capturing Indianapolis 500 glory. To his credit, Stewart came close, as he finished fifth in 1997 while running for an IndyCar championship.
In 1999, Stewart changed career paths and traded in his open-wheeled IndyCar for a fendered stock car in the then NASCAR Winston Cup — now Sprint Cup — Series.
After running the Coca-Cola 600/Indianapolis 500 double twice (1999 and 2001), Stewart soon realized he needed to focus solely on his NASCAR career.
That decision turned out pretty well for Stewart. 49 wins, three championships and one last shot to battle for a championship this year, and it’s safe to say that Stewart has cemented himself as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. But possibly the sweetest thing about Stewart’s NASCAR career, is that it provided him the opportunity to continue racing at the place he dreamed about as a child, Indianapolis.
Stewart had gone on to kiss the bricks, as is the tradition of the winner of the Brickyard 400, twice (2002 and 2007) and early on in Sunday’s race Stewart looked like a good bet to reach victory lane at the speedway again in his final attempt.
After starting from the third position, Stewart made a bold three-wide move on Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin on the first lap to take the second position. As the race wore on however, Stewart began to slip back in the running order.
Stewart remained a solid top-10 car though until getting trapped a lap down when he short-pitted during a green-flag pit sequence near the end of the event. Under his trip down pit road, Stewart was busted for speeding, moments later the caution came out. The penalty rendered Stewart unable to utilize a wave around, and it looked like he was on his way to roughly a 25th-place finish.
“I really did the team wrong here,” Stewart said after the race. “I got a penalty on the last stop and that is a green flag stop that turned into a yellow and got us a lap down.”
But Stewart would not relent.
As numerous cautions sparked up in the closing laps, Stewart was able to get back on the lead lap. And with each passing caution, Stewart was able to skillfully work his way up through the field.
When the checkered flag waved after a dramatic overtime period, Stewart had managed to come home in 11th. Afterward a calm, confident Stewart explained how things have changed since he won Sonoma a few races ago.
“This has been the most relaxing Brickyard I’ve ever had and the most fun I’ve had at a Brickyard,” said Stewart. “It was fun to win those two races, but it was stressful to do it. For some reason this weekend, Drew Brown and Eddie Jarvis and everybody just made my schedule as open as they could to let me enjoy it and we did. We had a lot of fun this weekend from start to finish.”
Stewart wraps up his NASCAR career at Indianapolis with 18 starts, two wins, seven top-five finishes, 11 top-10 finishes and an average finish of 9.7.
Stewart has now finished 11th-or-better in five of the last six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. That has been the catalyst to him being able to enjoy his final season in NASCAR’s premier series.
“It’s a heck of a lot better than being frustrated all the time. There are so many cool people that we care about in this series and it’s other team owners, it’s team members and crew chiefs and drivers; and we’re just having fun with it and that’s what we said we wanted to do at the start of the year and we wanted to have fun and win a race and we’ve done all that. I don’t think we’re quite done yet. So, we’re just going to keep having fun and going for it,” Stewart stated emphatically.
He may not have won in his final race at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but Stewart showed yet again that he is able to take lemons and make lemonade. With each passing week he becomes more and more of a championship threat.