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Indy win fulfills Stewart's lifelong quest

8/7/2005

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.

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.

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."