KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina (July 18, 2016) – Tony Stewart’s 2016 NASCAR swan song has already given motorsports fans the indelible memory of a last-corner pass at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June that preceded one of the more emotional victory lane celebrations of the season.
It was a victory that likely earned the 49-time winner a place in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs and, given recent success and his historic prowess in Chase races, the three-time champion will likely add to his career highlight reel this summer and fall.
Since announcing in September he would make 2016 his 18th and final season of Sprint Cup racing, it was obvious this Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway might be one of the landmark races of the season. After 17 Brickyard 400s, five Indianapolis 500s, three IROC races and a lifetime of reverence, Tony Stewart will say a final farewell to the track he’s admired since his boyhood growing up in nearby Columbus, Indiana.
Some of the greatest sports figures in the history of Indiana include names like John Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Peyton Manning, Bob Griese, Bobby Knight, Jeff Gordon and Stewart. Watching one of the state’s greats make a final shot, throw a touchdown pass or take a final lap around the revered speedway is never easy, but tens of thousands of Hoosiers will gather Sunday at the Brickyard to say goodbye to one of their own.
“I grew up and lived my whole life in Indiana,” Stewart said. “I didn’t move to Indiana. I didn’t move away from Indiana. I’m the only NASCAR driver in the Cup Series who’s from Indiana and who still lives in Indiana, and I’m proud of where I was born. I’m proud to be back. I still live in the town I was raised in. I take a lot of pride in that. I think the state of Indiana takes a lot of pride in that, and that’s why it makes it a big weekend.”
But spare him the emotional goodbyes.
Stewart, who’ll drive the No. 14 Mobil 1/Chevy Summer Sell Down Chevrolet this weekend, insists, “I’m not going away. I’ll be around. I just won’t be driving in NASCAR. Heck, around Indiana, the fans will probably have more chances to watch us race on dirt than they would if I stayed racing in NASCAR. I’ve got a lot of racing left in me. I look at it like 2017 will begin the second half of my driving career.”
Stewart understands the historic significance of Sunday’s race and the role he’s played at the world’s most famous racetrack. The former USAC and IndyCar Series champion grew up about 45 minutes from the historic track and once drove a tow truck while trying to make ends meet as an aspiring USAC driver. Stewart would drive down Georgetown Road toward 16th Street, running parallel with the speedway’s 3,330-foot-long frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running at 200 mph.
“I’m not going to downplay it because it’s one of the most important weekends of the year for me, being at home and racing in front of friends and family for the last time there. It’ll be an emotional weekend, for sure, but I’ve got a plan on how I’m going to approach the weekend, and I’m just going to stick to that plan and go about our work.”
Like one of the sports stars he admires, Peyton Manning, Stewart wants to walk out of his final season with his head held high carrying a trophy. He arrives at Indianapolis after finishing second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon last weekend. The performance is the latest in several consecutive weeks of running at the front of the field. Stewart has the second-most points of any driver in the last five races and the eighth-most in the last 10.
Because he missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident, Stewart’s first race in 2016 didn’t occur until April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver that made him eligible for the 2016 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. After the Sonoma victory, Stewart now must race his way in by ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points. Heading into this weekend, Stewart is 28th and leads 31st-place Brian Scott by 67 points.
History says Stewart will be a favorite this weekend. He has one pole, two wins, three top-three finishes, seven top-fives, 11 top-10s and has led a total of 227 laps in 17 career Sprint Cup starts at Indianapolis. He only has four finishes outside the top-12 – a 17th-place result in 2001, a 23rd-place finish in 2008, a 17th-place run in 2014 and a 28th-place finish last year. His average Sprint Cup start at Indianapolis is 14.6, his average Sprint Cup finish at Indianapolis is 9.6. His lap-completion rate is 100 percent. His open-wheel career at Indy is impressive, as well. In five Indy 500s, he earned three top-fives and only finished outside the top-seven once. He led four of the five races for 122 of 1,000 laps.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Chevy Summer Sell Down Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Did winning the 2005 Brickyard 400 lift a weight off your shoulders?
“I think back in 2005 I was fairly realistic that I was never going to get back to Indianapolis in an Indy car. The one thing that was always on the top of my resume was a blank spot that said Indy 500 winner. I think winning the Brickyard that year took the sting out of not winning there in an Indy car. It didn’t replace it, but it just took the sting out of it. To finally win at home, and to win at a facility that all my life was the holy grail when you grow up in Indiana, to finally be able to check that off the list, to do it a couple of times, now, they are definitely two of the highlights of my career.”
How special was it to finally kiss the yard of bricks in 2005?
“It was everything to me. My whole life, since I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do. Not that I had some fascination with kissing bricks as a child, but my fascination to do it (at Indianapolis) was pretty obsessive.”
What’s different about driving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
“When you come down the front straightaway, there are grandstands on both sides. Visually, it makes turn one seem like you are driving down a dark alley. It’s very intimidating when you are coming down the front straightaway. The back straightaway is, dimension-wise, exactly the same, but there are no grandstands on the inside. The sun, when it is setting in the west, comes across and gives you a better perspective of seeing around the corner. Man, that front straightaway, especially where the start-finish line is, if you are leading that race and you come off turn four, that’s a long way to the checkered flag. If a guy isn’t right behind you, you have a lot of time to savor that moment driving underneath the double checkered flags and the yard of bricks. Man, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.”
“I have spent my whole time doing this. I’ve been racing since I was 8 years old. I definitely feel like we’ve earned it. But I don’t know that it’s an earned deal. I mean, I still want to be a racecar driver. I still want to drive racecars. I still want to be active in racing. But the time demands, I mean, every year – I can tell you over the last 17 years how much more gets added on and added on and added on, and every time they add something, that’s less time we get to do the things we want to do, and I’m just finally to the point where I’m ready to regain some of my time back.”
Will you run in the Indy 500 again?
“Absolutely not. Every year somebody asks me that, and every year I tell them absolutely not, and for some reason they don’t seem to get it. I don’t think 45 years old is an age to try to revive an IndyCar drive. The good thing is, if I want to go to the Indy and watch the 500, now I have the opportunity to go to the Indy 500 again as a spectator and watch, and then get on a plane and fly down and watch our cars race at the Coke 600.”
When you raced in USAC, you had an eye pointed toward Indianapolis, but only in regard to running an Indy car. Now drivers running in USAC still seem to have their sights set on Indy, but it’s in regard to running a stock car. What caused this change?
“Jeff Gordon was probably the biggest influence. He had a lot of success in USAC – won a lot of races. He wasn’t just handed an opportunity in NASCAR. He earned his way down there. When he got the opportunity to go to NASCAR, he opened up a lot of opportunities for drivers like myself. And the TV package that USAC had at the time with the Thursday Night Thunder Series on ESPN, it brought guys from all over the country because of the recognition that could be earned from running USAC. We had guys coming from Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Illinois to participate in USAC races because of Jeff’s success and the opportunity that he had to come to NASCAR. Indy cars weren’t an option at the time because, unless you brought a big-dollar sponsor, you weren’t going to get a ride. When Jeff had his success down South, it boosted everybody’s spirits and helped show everyone in USAC that it was a reality and that if they had the same kind of results that Jeff had on the track, then it could happen to them, too.”
Does your experience at Indianapolis in both NASCAR and IndyCar make it that much more comfortable to you, or is it just another track where you have a couple of victories?
“No, it’s definitely not just another victory to us. It’s a big deal to us to win here. This is an event that I definitely circle on the schedule and emotionally have a lot invested in it. To us, it’s definitely not just another stop that’s on the calendar and on the schedule. You don’t just pull in and say, ‘we’re going to go in, try to win the race and then pull out of here.’ When you’re here, you’re amped up because you’re at Indianapolis.”
What was your first childhood memory of Indy?
“I came with my father. We were in some bus that had a luggage rack in the top of it. You had to get up at o-dark-30 to get on the bus to ride up to Indy for race day. They threw me up in the luggage rack. Somebody gave me a pillow and everybody started throwing their jackets on top of me to keep me warm. The ride home wasn’t nearly as cool because, after a long day at the track, everybody but my dad and I were kind of rowdy. I was probably 5 years old. We sat in turns three and four. We were two rows up, right in the middle of the short chute. The hard thing was you could hardly see anything. The cars were so fast. They were a blur. But to see those cars under caution and smell the methanol fumes and everything, it was still pretty cool.”