July 17, 2012 | By John Oreovicz
Brickyard Super Weekend Profile: Tony Stewart
Growing up in Indiana, Tony Stewart’s dream was to race in the Indianapolis 500.
Winning the Brickyard 400 twice was just an unexpected bonus. And it’s just one reason why Stewart is one of the most talented and versatile racers of his generation.
Columbus, IN native Stewart attended the Indianapolis 500 for the first time when he was just five years old. He pursued an Indy car career the same way his heroes like A.J. Foyt did – through USAC sprints and midgets. In 1995, Stewart was the first driver to claim USAC’s Triple Crown for winning championships in Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown.
Stewart was just the kind of driver Tony George envisioned when he formed the Indy Racing League in 1996 and Stewart made the most of the opportunity to race Indy cars. He adapted immediately to the rear engine machines and finished second in his debut race at Walt Disney World Speedway.
Stewart scored the first of his three IndyCar race win at Pikes Peak International Raceway in 1997 and overcame engine reliability issues to the 1997 IRL championship. He raced Indy cars full time through the end of the 1998 season, but by then he was driving in the NASCAR Busch (Nationwide) Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Gibbs gave Stewart a chance to move into the Cup Series in 1999. In all Stewart ran the Indy 500 five times, qualifying seventh or better four times and finishing in the top nine on three occasions.
Indy car racing’s loss was NASCAR’s gain, because Stewart has established himself as one of the most popular and marketable drivers of the last 15 years. His brash, gunslinger personality off the track is sometimes at odds with his on-track reputation as a tough but clean racer.
Stewart’s accomplishment in the NASCAR Cup Series include 47 race wins and Cup championships in 2002, ’05 and ’11. The last was arguably the most impressive; after struggling to make the 12-driver field for the NASCAR Chase, ‘Smoke’ was at his dominant best in the 10 race ‘playoff’ portion of the schedule, winning the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to edge Carl Edwards for the crown.
Stewart has maintained strong links with his short track past, and it’s no accident that he has the strongest grassroots network of fans among all drivers. Throughout his NASCAR career, he fielded cars in USAC competition, winning championships as a team owner with drivers including JJ Yeley, Dave Steele, Jay Drake and Levi Jones.
His business interests also include ownership of Eldora Speedway, where Stewart annually hosts the Prelude to A Dream charity event that attracts drivers from all across the spectrum of racing. He also co-owns three other short tracks.
It’s no surprise that Stewart went the team ownership route in NASCAR as well. He has always been heavily influenced by Foyt, who operated his own team for the majority of the Indy car career and still fields cars in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Stewart now races #14 in NASCAR, the number long associated with Foyt.
Stewart-Haas Racing, formed in 2009, has become one of NASCAR’s elite teams, taking advantage of equipment supplied by Hendrick Motorsports. In 2013, Stewart-Haas will become the first team to field a female driver full-time in the Cup Series when former Indy car star Danica Patrick graduates to NASCAR’s top category.
Stewart retains strong Hoosier ties, and his primary residence is in Bartholomew County near Columbus. Although he hasn’t won the Daytona 500, he counts his two wins in the Brickyard 400 as the highlight of his career.
“It’s the most intense weekend of the year for me outside of Daytona," Stewart said. “But it’s always a lot of fun because we have friends and family there and it’s definitely a place where I have first hand knowledge of the history and what it means to win at Indy."
“It’s stressful, and everybody in the organization kind of walks on pins and needles all weekend,” he added. “But it’s fun and when you have a good day there and a good run, it just means that much more to you.”
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