Indy win fulfills Stewart's lifelong quest

Updated: August 7, 2005, 9:50 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony Stewart said before the race began he didn't care if he won or lost, he simply wanted to have some fun at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Nextel Cup Series Standings
(unofficial through Sept. 4)
Rank Driver Behind
1. Tony Stewart --
2. (+1) Greg Biffle -209
3. (-1) Jimmie Johnson -258
4. Rusty Wallace -313
5. Mark Martin -421
6. (+1) Kurt Busch -456
7. (-1) Jeremy Mayfield -497
8. Carl Edwards -556
9. (+2) Matt Kenseth -631
10. (+2) Jamie McMurray -641

Yeah, right. Indy is the only track that matters to Stewart, the only place he wanted to win.

He finally did it Sunday, winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard to end nine years of frustration and heartbreak on the track he calls his "Holy Grail."

"You guys have helped me win my lifelong dream today," he screamed over his radio to his crew as he crossed the finish line.

One victory lap, then another. A stop near the suite where his friends and family were celebrating his win.

When he finally got out of his car, the chants of "Tony! Tony! Tony!" were deafening. Exhausted, he climbed the fence in celebration then collapsed on the frontstretch wall.

Tony Stewart
After several close calls over the years, Stewart finally closed the deal on his favorite track.

At long last, Stewart got his chance to kiss the Yard of Bricks at Indianapolis. When it was his turn, he lined up on his knees, surrounded by his mother, father and sister. Holding hands, they leaned over together for the kiss, celebrating the years of sacrifice it took to get Stewart here.

Make no mistake, he earned this win.

In years past, an antsy Stewart would charge to the front of the field and lead lap after lap in pursuit of his dream. But bad luck, bad breaks and bad decisions always foiled him in the end.

After another disappointing finish, Tony the Terrible -- the nickname he'd earned as NASCAR's Bad Boy -- would stomp off in anger. He even snapped once, punching a photographer in 2002 after fading to a 12th place finish.

But this season has been a yearlong personality transformation for Stewart, one that began when he left North Carolina and moved back into the tiny three bedroom home he grew up in in Columbus, Ind.

Just a 45-minute drive from Indy, Stewart surrounded himself with his childhood friends and blended into the community. He bowls on the weeknights, stops for beers at the Moose and Eagles Lodges and stops for free milkshakes at Dairy Queen.

It had a calming effect on the temperamental driver, who has yet to have one of his famous blowups this season.

Never was the new attitude more clear than it was on Sunday when Stewart hung back in the pack after starting 22nd. There was no need to race to the front.

When the time was right, Stewart would get there.

He finally did 100 laps into the race and seemed headed to the win. Then Kasey Kahne snatched the lead away from him with 27 laps to go and it could have been over for Stewart.

In years past, losing the lead would have been enough to make a frustrated Stewart quit trying out of anger and drift back to a meaningless finish. Instead, he stayed calm as he chased down Kahne.

When a caution came out with 15 laps to go, Stewart had the biggest decision of the race in front of him: Should he give up track position to pit for tires, or stay out and try to muscle his way past Kahne.

He and crew chief Greg Zipadelli debated back and forth over the radio, with Zipadelli urging his driver to make a decision.

"I'm too … nervous to call it, bud," he replied.

So they stayed on the track, gambling that they made the right decision.

It took Stewart just seconds to get into the lead, passing Kahne as they exited the second turn with 11 laps to go. He had to fight to hold him off, finally shaking him for good with just over 10 miles to go. There was no challenge as he crossed the finish line, screaming his appreciation to Zipadelli and his Joe Gibbs Racing team.

Back on the pit box, Zipadelli was too emotional to speak.

"You have no idea what this means," he sobbed. "I just can't wait to see the expression on his face."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE