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‘Smoke’ Thinks Historic Tripleheader at IMS Should Ignite Passion in Every Racing Fan

When it comes to “Legends of the Brickyard,” Tony Stewart ranks among the greatest.

He is arguably the best racing driver produced from the State of Indiana. Born in Columbus, Indiana, Stewart first made his name in the United States Auto Club (USAC) ranks in the 1990s.

After becoming the first driver to win all three USAC National Championships (Midget, Sprint Car and Silver Crown) in the same season in 1995, Stewart moved up to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in 1996.

He started on the pole for his first Indianapolis 500 in 1996 and won the 1996-97 INDYCAR championship for team owner John Menard.

In 1999, Stewart switched gears and joined the NASCAR Cup Series. He won the Cup Series title in 2002, 2005 and 2011. He won the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Big Machine Records in 2005 and 2007.

With 49 career Cup victories, Stewart was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January 2020.

In addition to owning the highly successful Stewart-Haas Racing team in NASCAR Cup and Xfinity, Stewart continues to race on local short tracks throughout America.

The native Hoosier has a deep love for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and this weekend, it’s the site of the first INDYCAR-NASCAR tripleheader in history.

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES GMR Grand Prix is at noon (ET) Saturday, July 4, followed by the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pennzoil 150 at 3 p.m. ET. Both contests will be on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the first time NASCAR has competed on that layout.

Sunday, it’s the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard Presented by Big Machine Record at 4 p.m. ET on the oval.

All three races will be televised on NBC.

Stewart spoke about this historic weekend at the famed Brickyard. He had hoped to run the Xfinity Series race Saturday but couldn’t work out the logistics due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s going to be great,” Stewart said. “That’s why I was looking forward to being a part of it. Obviously, the COVID thing happened, and it changed what I was able to do and not do. That’s why I wanted to be a part of it. It’s going to be a huge weekend.

“I love the fact that we are having a NASCAR weekend at the same facility and run two different styles of racing. I think it’s a great opportunity for both INDYCAR and NASCAR to do something together like that at a very historic venue and make it a really huge weekend for motorsports.

“I don’t know that we have ever seen anything like this, to run two different configurations the same weekend. I think it’s very cool.”

Because of the historic nature of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, and that the NASCAR Cup Series has competed on the same layout as the Indianapolis 500 every year since 1994, Stewart is glad the Cup race remains an oval contest.

The Xfinity Series gets to be the first NASCAR tour to compete on the road course.

“It has a much better opportunity to be a better race on the road course with the Xfinity Series,” Stewart said. “The history of the Brickyard 400, it’s important to keep that on the oval.

“In 1994 when the Brickyard 400 happened the first year, I was one of those guys that thought it was wrong to have NASCAR at Indy. But after seeing it the first year and how good it was for NASCAR and for IMS, I really liked it.

“When Xfinity came, I didn’t think it was right for Xfinity to be there. But I think it’s great that Xfinity is running that road course. That’s huge, plus it gives NASCAR the opportunity to remain on the oval.”

The GMR Grand Prix was originally scheduled to kick off the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway leading into the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Because of the COVID-19 shutdown, that race was moved from early May to July 4 to become part of the Brickyard weekend.

Although it was borne out of scheduling necessity, drivers in both INDYCAR and NASCAR would like to see it become a permanent part of the July schedule to increase awareness for both forms of racing.

The event had the makings for a big crowd, but his year’s race will be held without spectators because of the pandemic. Once life returns to normal, Stewart believes it would be a tremendous opportunity to showcase both INDYCAR and NASCAR in front of live spectators at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the future.

“INDYCAR fans are going to come the same day to watch INDYCAR and they are going to get to see a NASCAR race and vice-versa,” Stewart said. “You will have NASCAR fans there that get the opportunity to see a cool INDYCAR race.

“I think it’s awesome to have that crossover, and it’s something that could be very positive for both sports.”

Once the shutdown occurred, business plans had to change and Stewart decided to focus his efforts on the team’s full-time Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe of nearby Mitchell, Indiana.

“To make sure we were doing the right thing for Chase Briscoe, I needed to step down from the Xfinity race,” Stewart said. “I don’t have any regrets because I’m proud of what Chase is doing. Our effort needs to be 100 percent on doing everything we can to help him have the opportunity to win as many races and the championship this season. We are doing the right thing for the company and for Chase.

“I would have loved to have run, but at the same time without the funding, it would have been tough to do it. I’m proud of what Ford does for us, but we had to make a change because of COVID.

“Maybe next year, or somewhere down the road, we will get an opportunity to do it again.”

It also creates a tempting scenario for a race driver that could one day compete in all three races, on two different layouts in the same weekend at IMS.

Drivers such as Kyle Busch have competed in NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Xfinity and Cup races in the same weekend, but could a driver run in INDYCAR, Xfinity and Cup in consecutive days?

“I think that will be really hard,” Stewart said. “If it was the Indy cars on the ovals, you would have a better chance of that happening. To expect a NASCAR guy to get in an Indy car on the road course and get up to speed, I don’t know. I’ve never done it. I’ve never run an Indy car on a road course. It’s harder to get used to an Indy car running on a road course than on the oval.

“I don’t think it’s very realistic to get anybody to do it unless they already had an INDYCAR background.”

With a deep love and respect for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its traditions, Stewart understands the historic significance of this weekend’s tripleheader. It’s the first weekend of racing at the legendary venue since Roger Penske purchased the facility from Hulman and Company on Nov. 4, 2019 and took full ownership Jan. 6.

“I love the Hulman-George family and everything they have done,” Stewart said. “Without the Hulman-George family and Tony George, in particular, I would have never had the opportunity race an Indy car at the Indianapolis 500. I think that is why they chose Roger Penske to carry on the legacy of the Speedway.

“Knowing how detail-oriented Roger is, I’m excited. I think you will see it in a state you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s going to be awesome.

“I’m proud of Roger for all of the effort he has made. He didn’t just buy it; he’s been hands on and dedicated a lot of time and effort into the Speedway so far.”

Two different forms of racing, competing in three races on two different configurations of racecourse is a race fans’ dream scenario.

And that race fan’s dream is none other than Tony Stewart.

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