Indy has been bittersweet home for Stewart
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a shrine to speed and has been for nearly a century. And Stewart wants to be more than just a footnote when the track's history is recalled.
That he's already come so close to making his mark at Indy just builds the passion. He's raced in five Indianapolis 500s and is preparing for his seventh Brickyard 400 this weekend. He's competed in the International Race of Champions at the 2.5-mile oval to boot.
And he has yet to park one of his cars in Victory Lane. That would be easier to take if the talented Stewart was driving cars that didn't equal his abilities, but that's hardly been the case. Stewart's been good enough to win on numerous occasions, making the end result all the more painful.
So, yes, Stewart admits he finds the track addictive.
"It's just one of those places that consumes you. It's like Daytona is to all the stock car guys who have grown up around stock car racing all their lives," Stewart says. "Indy is just one of those special places. There's no other track like it. There is no other track shaped like it. It's just a neat atmosphere. When you have a track like that with so much history, it's hard not to get consumed in it."
Stewart, though, is doing his level best to keep things in perspective. He's back in Indiana, living in his childhood home. To some, that might mean even more pressure, but Stewart's been as relaxed this year as he was during a spectacular rookie Cup campaign in 1999.
He spoke with the media at a teleconference Monday, hoping he could lessen the demands on his time while at the track. A one-day test session went well and his Joe Gibbs Racing team has been on a roll.
Of course, that just means even more people expect Stewart to finally win at Indy. So no matter how relaxed Stewart is, he knows the spotlight will shine brightly.
"From my growing up in Indiana, and everybody knowing how much I want to win there, it creates a lot of attention," Stewart said. "That extra attention sometimes creates a lot of problems for us. So [the teleconference] is a step in trying to make my load a little easier for this weekend and help alleviate some of those stresses and strains that can get in the way. For the most part, we'll all just have fun and do the best we can at treating it like any other weekend. Although, deep down, all the guys know how important that weekend is to me."
Especially because they know his star-crossed history at the Brickyard. In his five Indy 500s, Stewart has led just 122 laps. As a rookie in 1996, Stewart led the first 32 laps before problems with the pop-off valve on his engine ended his day before the halfway mark. Two years later, he took the lead on lap 21 only to watch his engine expire.
|“||Indy is just one of those special places. There's no other track like it. There is no other track shaped like it. It's just a neat atmosphere. When you have a track like that with so much history, it's hard not to get consumed in it. ”|
|— Tony Stewart|
The NASCAR circuit has been even more frustrating. In 2001, Stewart bounced off the wall while in contention and admitted he was trying too hard.
And his meltdown late the following year nearly alienated his team and ruined his hopes at the Winston Cup championship. Having won the pole, Stewart led four times for 43 of the 160 laps. But as his handling went awry late, he fell through the pack swiftly and ended up 12th.
Stewart was involved in an altercation with a photographer after the race and crew chief Greg Zipadelli's frustration with his driver was evident. If not for a win the following week in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Stewart's season could have continued to spiral downward.
A year later, Stewart led 60 laps, but a slow pit stop contributed to another 12th-place finish.
With an average finish of third over the past six races -- including wins in Sonoma, Calif., Daytona, Fla., and Loudon, N.H., -- Stewart is both a legitimate and sentimental favorite.
That, of course, doesn't mean much once the green flag falls.
"It's good to know that people have the confidence in you and your team that you're good enough to win there," Stewart says. "But there's just something about Indy. It's difficult to win there. It's probably one of the hardest places to win a race. Just because you're a favorite doesn't mean it's an automatically done deal."
And please don't try telling Stewart the track owes him one.
"No racetrack 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 says. "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. So no, Indy doesn't owe me anything."
Stewart's best finish at Indy is a second in the 2001 IROC race, a year after he finished third. His best Indy 500 finish was a fifth in '97 and he's finished fifth in Cup events in 2000 and 2004.
Stewart says much of his new attitude can be traced to the move back home to Indiana following the end of the '04 season. Free to hang out with those who've known him best and longest, he smiles a lot more at the track these days.
The question is whether that new attitude can pass its biggest test yet.
"I think just being more relaxed will be a big deal," Zipadelli says. "He's having fun this year -- not that we haven't in the past. It's just a little bit different. He showed up at the racetrack really focused on winning and learning to control some of the things that used to aggravate him or be a distraction to him.
"Hopefully we can take the same approach to Indy this year. I don't know. I'm sure it'll be a little more than Loudon or Daytona or any of those other racetracks because we are going to his hometown and knowing how much he wants to win there and some of the things he's said in the past as far as what it would mean to him. We're just going to try to make light of the weekend and have fun and do the best we can. Hopefully I can tell him that we need to try to put ourselves in position to win, and that's all you can ask."
If not, Stewart will try, try again. And even if he never wins at Indy, he knows it won't be the end of the world.
"It's not one of those situations that if I never win there, my career is not going to be complete because it is home," Stewart says. "It's just like when we go to Loudon. That's a very important race to Zippy because it's close to home for him. Everybody has that one track on the schedule that is important to them.
"I wish I could say I've had a lot of fun there. Normally, it's one of my more miserable weekends of the year, but I think it's because we put so much pressure on ourselves to do well. You get one shot a year at it. When it's over, it's over. If you didn't get the result you wanted, you've got to wait 365 days to try it again. There are all kinds of races that way. The Chili Bowl in Oklahoma in January is the same way. There are two or three races on the schedule that are like that, that are very important to you and every time you go there, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform there."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.