Tony Stewart isn't kidding when he says he'd trade every win and every trophy for just one victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As a budding young racer growing up in Indiana, it was the only track that really mattered.
Now 34 years old, that hasn't changed for Stewart. He's won championships in sprint cars, stock cars and an open-wheel series, but he's never kissed the bricks at Indy. He's come plenty close in 14 appearances, winning two poles and leading tons of laps.
But he's always come up short in the end.
Indy, his shrine, is also Stewart's demon.
He would give anything to change that, and will try to again this Sunday in the Brickyard 400.
''Take the one thing in your life that you're the most passionate about and you'll have a good understanding of what Indy means to me,'' he said. ''If I could give away my championship and just get one win at Indy, I would do it in a heartbeat.''
This season might be his best shot at ending his curse at Indy. He heads into the race on a roll, winning three of NASCAR's last five events. His team is clicking and the temperamental Stewart has never been more at peace.
Everyone around him attributes his relaxed approach this season to Stewart's decision to leave North Carolina and move back into the home he grew up in Columbus, Ind. There he's not a famous race car driver, he's just a regular guy in the community.
''The neighbors on both sides and across the street and behind me are all the same neighbors, they're just older now,'' he said.
''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.''
All grown up now, Stewart says he joined the Moose Lodge and the Eagles Lodge to gain a sense of community. He has keys to the neighbors' homes and can be counted on to take care of their pets. They all return the favor. Stewart now blends in at the local restaurants, goes unnoticed at Dairy Queen, and is just another guy out bowling with his buddies on a weeknight.
Everyone around him has noticed the calming effect it's had on Stewart.
''He's very comfortable in that element and that's probably the most important thing,'' crew chief Greg Zipadelli. ''He's relaxed during the week. He doesn't get bothered by a lot of people and just gets to hang out with people who were friends with him before he got to where he is today.''
But Zipadelli knows that when Stewart pulls into Indy for Friday's first practice, everything will probably change. The calmness will likely be gone and Stewart will be on edge, ready to snap at the slightest thing.
''You just know he's going to be at wit's end with people and with our guys and everything else because of the pressure and stress that he feels,'' Zipadelli said. ''It's hard for me to understand.''
That's just how it is with Indy and Stewart. The track always gets the best of him.
He's led a total of 122 laps in his five Indianapolis 500 starts, but never at the end. Mechanical failures ended his day twice, including the time his engine blew right after he took the lead in 1998.
The NASCAR races haven't been any smoother. He challenged for the win late in 2001, only to hit the wall as he raced for the lead. ''I was just trying too hard,'' he said at the end.
He started from the pole in 2002 and led four times for 43 laps, but he faded at the end and finished 12th. Frustrated as he left the track, he punched a photographer in the lowest moment of his career.
He came back to challenge again in 2003, leading three times for 60 laps, but a slow final pit stop and a late caution combined to give him another 12th place finish.
His struggles don't yet rival the heartbreak that Michael Andretti has suffered at Indianapolis he failed in 21 years to score a win there as a driver. Stewart only has to look to Andretti's cruel breaks to feel better about his own shortcomings.
''No race track ever owes you anything. I've heard that from drivers, but Michael Andretti was the one who straightened a lot of people out on that one,'' Stewart said. ''He said that all those years that he led laps at Indy 500s and didn't win it's a place that you have to earn victories. They're not given to you. Indy doesn't owe me anything.''
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