The racetrack didn’t owe him anything. If anything, it was the other way around.
Lots of kids grew up in the shadow of racing’s most famous oval, zooming over nearby asphalt tracks in sprint cars, midgets and go-carts. And just this once, nobody had to remind Tony Stewart how few of them ever get good or lucky enough to make it inside the gates at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway without buying a ticket first.
Before Sunday’s Allstate 400, Stewart had run at least a dozen times at the old brickyard. He did it first in open-wheel racers at the Indy 500 in May, and the last half-dozen times in stock cars, when NASCAR carved out a slot in August. Each time, he came away empty-handed.
‘‘You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it,’’ Stewart said. ‘‘I worked in that area. I drove a tow truck for a guy I raced sprint cars against. I’d drive down 16th Street and wonder what it would be like to be 300 feet to the left running at 200 miles an hour.
‘‘Today, I finally got to ... see what the view is coming down that front straightaway, seeing those checkered flags as the first driver to go under versus the third or fourth driver.’’
You’d think that making up those couple of places would be a matter of finding more speed. What enabled Stewart to make his breakthrough, however, was finding more patience. Like rival Jeff Gordon, another phenom who spent his formative years driving at the little tracks that ring the Speedway, Stewart was used to doing everything fast. It suited him fine everywhere but Indy.
In 1995, Stewart made U.S. Auto Club history by becoming the first driver to win the National Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles the Triple Crown of minor-league racing in the same year. In 1996, still committed to open-wheel cars, he earned a ride in the fledgling Indy Racing League and won Rookie of the Year. A year later, he won the series championship.
By then, though, the handwriting was on the speedway walls. A rift between Indy 500 boss Tony George and owners and drivers of the Championship Auto Racing Teams, now called the Champ Car World Series, was increasingly driving fans to NASCAR.
‘‘I remember when they brought NASCAR to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,’’ Stewart said. ‘‘I was one of the guys that said, ’Man, this is a bunch of crap. They don’t need to be here. Indy cars are the only thing that should be on the racetrack. That’s the way it’s always been, that’s the way it should always be.’
‘‘I was one of those guys,’’ he recalled, ‘‘that boohooed it then.’’
But by 1999, Stewart joined the exodus of promising American drivers from open-wheel racing to the stock-car circuit. The one thing that didn’t change, though, was Stewart’s reverence for the Speedway, or the way he approached it.
Three years later, in the midst of his first NASCAR championship, Stewart dominated the Brickyard race. He started from the pole and led 43 laps before slipping to a 12th-place finish. He let everyone know how much the race meant to him by punching a photographer after it ended.
‘‘Kind of like Dale Earnhardt and Daytona for so many years,’’ Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s longtime crew chief, said afterward. ‘‘Believe me, the harder the harder and the more emphasis you put on things, sometimes the harder it is for them to come. It’s just the way it is.’’
Stewart’s impatience reached the boiling point at the end of last season. Often short-tempered on the track, he was increasingly bringing his frustration back to the garage. Zipadelli confronted Stewart and a free-for-all session with the crew ensued. Soon after, Stewart left the NASCAR mecca in Charlotte and moved back to his boyhood home in Columbus, Ind. There, just a 45-miunte drive from the Speedway, he hung out at the local lodge drinking beer and went bowling.
The dividends weren’t immediately apparent, but in the last few weeks, Stewart’s team has been on a tear unlike anything the sport has seen in a while. Beginning with the Nextel Cup race at Michigan in mid-June, Stewart won three times and finished no lower than fifth. He won on different courses and led half the laps in five races leading up the Allstate 400, a mind-boggling number.
But with 30 laps left Sunday, he was locked in a duel with Kasey Kahne and still to be answered was the question of how Stewart would handle the return to Indy. Light on fuel and low on tread, he had to hold the car together long enough to take a final shot. Just as trying, Stewart had to negotiate with Zipadelli over the radio on when to take it.
‘‘I just finally said, ’Hey, whatever you say, we’re going to stick by, we’ll do it a hundred percent,’’’ Stewart said.
On a restart with 11 laps left to go, Zipadelli’s last directive was, ‘‘Be smart. Make me proud.’’
Stewart found his opening, dove low on the inside and passed Kahne. The lesson Stewart learned about patience may not stick with him long, but it’s enough for at least one night.
‘‘I’m sleeping with that trophy in the bed tonight,’’ Stewart said. ‘‘I’m serious as a heart attack. I’ll wake up, I may have stab marks in my back from the edges, but I’m sleeping with it tonight.’’
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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