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Stewart has win at Indy

Posted: Monday, August 08, 2005

 

  Tony Stewart celebrates as he climbs the fence after winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday, Aug.7, 2005 in Indianapolis. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Tony Stewart celebrates as he climbs the fence after winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday, Aug.7, 2005 in Indianapolis.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

INDIANAPOLIS — When victory finally came for Tony Stewart at Indianapolis on Sunday, it was everything he thought it would be.

''This is one of those days, I don't want it to end,'' Stewart said. ''I don't want to see the sun set. It's definitely the greatest day of my life, professionally and personally up to this point.''

A lifelong quest to win a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ended with Stewart finally getting his ''Holy Grail,'' and he made sure to draw out the celebration as long as he could while the partisan crowd roared with approval.

It wasn't the native Hoosier's beloved Indianapolis 500, but the former IndyCar champion, who has longed to win a race at the historic speedway, held off a determined challenge from Kasey Kahne to grab an emotional victory in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

As the partisan crowd screamed ''Tony! Tony! Tony!'' a beaming Stewart said, ''You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it. To finally get to see what it was like coming down that main straightaway seeing the checkered flags was just incredible.''

The 34-year-old Stewart, who came to NASCAR in 1999 from the Indy Racing League, where he was a champion, grew up coveting a victory at the historic track on the west side of Indianapolis.

In five tries in the 500, though, he never finished better than fifth.

Until Sunday, his NASCAR resume wasn't any better, with two fifth-place finishes his best efforts in six previous starts at Indianapolis.

Stewart dominated the Brickyard race in 2002, starting from the pole and leading 43 laps only to fade to a 12th-place finish. He was so frustrated, NASCAR's sometimes bad boy snapped and punched a photographer after the race.

Stewart was again the driver to beat in 2003, leading a race-high 60 laps. But two questionable stops for tires late in the race sent him reeling to another 12th-place finish and left him disappointed and frustrated.

Last year, he never led a lap and finished fifth.

His father, Nelson Stewart, has seen his son stress out in each previous try at Indy, saying, ''When you do that, then anything can go wrong. It has (in the past), and that's generally what happens.''

Not this time.

Stewart moved from North Carolina back to his hometown, Columbus, Ind., earlier this year and has repeatedly said he has changed his attitude, enjoying life more and not getting upset when things go wrong at the racetrack or away from it.

He came to the speedway this month hopeful and confident, and is now the winner of four of his last six races and riding a string of seven straight top-10 finishes. Besides fulfilling his dream, Sunday's victory vaulted Stewart into the lead in the Nextel Cup standings for the first time since he wrapped up his only Cup title in 2002.

Stewart slept a little later than usual on Sunday morning and skipped the usual sponsor obligations, staying as calm and focused as possible. In the race, he was the epitome of patience — not his usual style.

It paid off.

This race was up for grabs nearly to the end, with Stewart taking his first lead by passing Brian Vickers with 60 laps to go. But the 25-year-old Kahne, last year's top rookie, didn't make it easy, passing Stewart for the lead with 27 laps left in the 160-lap event — bringing a groan from the crowd of more than 250,000.

Stewart stayed with Kahne, though. After Jimmie Johnson — who came into the race as the points leader — blew a tire and hit the wall on lap 144, bringing out the last of nine caution flags in the race, Stewart took advantage of the restart on lap on lap 150 to regain the lead.

Kahne hung onto the rear bumper of Stewart's orange No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet for a couple of laps, but Stewart finally began pulling away and raced on to win by 0.794-seconds — about five car-lengths.

Stewart, who has climbed the fence to the flagstand after his most recent victories this year, parked his car in the corner of turn two after the cool-down lap and walked up to the foot of the fence, where he popped open a can of soda and started sipping.

Then he got back in his car, started it up and headed for the start-finish line. After getting hugs from his crew, he lay down on the concrete wall at the bottom of the fencing, holding a checkered cloth to his forehead, wearing a giddy grin all the while.

''I'm dying right now,'' said Stewart, who noted the air conditioning in his driving suit only worked sporadically on the hot day. ''Too tired to chase fences right now. Give me five minutes and I'll be ready.''

Finally, Stewart regained enough energy to really begin his victory celebration, taking a slow ride around the famed 2.5-mile oval in a convertible truck, smiling and waving to the cheering fans.

He and his crew hung on the fence in front of the main grandstand for a while, then got on their knees and turned their hats backward for the Indy tradition of kissing the yard of red bricks that harken back to the days when the entire track was brick and now mark the finish line.

Kahne, who got his first Nextel Cup victory earlier this season at Richmond, was disappointed for himself but happy for Stewart.

''We had an awesome car,'' he said. ''I just gave up a little bit through the restart. I couldn't do anything with it.

''It was a big win for Tony. He wanted to win this real bad.''

Vickers finished third, followed by Jeremy Mayfield, Matt Kenseth, Casey Mears, Mark Martin and four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon.

As great a day as it was for Stewart, it was a disastrous race for Johnson, who started 42nd after his car failed inspection on Saturday.

He was able to drive into the top 20 early in the race but spun out and wound up being sent to the rear of the lead lap cars after making two pit stops for repairs when NASCAR had pit road closed.

Johnson was dazed after slamming hard into the wall late in the race. Calling it the ''hardest hit I've taken,'' he had to be helped out of his car in the pits when the engine caught fire.

Asked if he realized the car was on fire, Johnson said, ''No, I don't really remember coming from turn four to the pits. I just remember kind of waking up on pit road and the guys pulling me out of the car. So, it's all good.''

Johnson, who fell to second place in the standings, 75 points behind Stewart, was examined at Methodist Hospital and released.

Another significant yellow flag came on lap 63 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was hit from behind and turned sideways into the inside wall by Mike Skinner before sliding back up the track and making contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr., Scott Wimmer and Robby Gordon.

The crash ended the day for Earnhardt, who was struggling with an ill-handling car and was running far back in the field. It also all but eliminated the fan favorite from contention for a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship that will include the top 10 drivers in the standings and any others within 400 points of the leader after the race Sept. 10 at Richmond.



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