There are some tracks where the mere mention of the name evokes memories of just one man, the driver above all others who took pleasure in making that rock-hard circle of speed his own personal playground.
Darrell Waltrip and Bristol. Bill Elliott and Michigan. Dale Earnhardt and Talladega. Trophies were but a metaphor for these legends, defining themselves through years of dominance at a track with which they achieved perfect chemistry.
Looks like the formula’s in place for Tony Stewart and Indianapolis.
As Stewart stamped his name on his second Brickyard 400 title in three years, halfway to Jeff Gordon‘s record of four, the aura around the Speedway Sunday felt as if the track was paying homage to the winner of the 14th annual Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, not the other way around. As the No. 20 Home Depot team climbed the fence in unity, Stewart’s face told you all you needed to know about the way in which the Indiana native respects this track – and the utter exhilaration a victory here brings him above any other.
At a track where Stewart was once vilified – a post-race incident with a photographer nearly led to a suspension back in 2002 – it’s nice to see such positive energy from the Indiana native turn its way toward the hometown crowd.
“When you’re passionate about something, you want your family to be around it, involved,” beamed Stewart as he explained why this track pumps him up so much. “You want your friends to be a part of it, see you do it. Having the suite over there [at IMS for his family], I mean, I could see my dad. I could see my dad on the third floor this year. It’s like, good grief, this guy is going to haunt me for 160 laps again.”
Haunted was hardly the way to describe Stewart’s performance on this day, however. Smoke was so relaxed during the final 10 laps, in-car camera shots showed Gibbs’s lead driver drinking from his water bottle while battling for the lead with Kevin Harvick. Consistent throughout the course of the race, you never got the impression that Stewart ever let the lead slip beyond his control; he may have led just seven times for 65 laps, but he was in control for 160 of 160.
It’s that type of unflappable performance that Stewart always expects he’ll put on, at a track that keeps repeating itself as his wildest dream.
“The pressure you put on when you walk in that gate on Friday morning, it’s not even explainable,” exclaimed Stewart’s crew chief Greg Zipadelli about what the team experiences during a weekend at Indianapolis. “The relationship Tony [Stewart] has with this racetrack and his experiences growing up and what it means to him makes it double of what it normally would if you had somebody who just wanted to win here.”
At one time, the pressure would get to the No. 20 team every single year. The early part of this decade gave Stewart exceptional opportunities to take home the trophy; but the only similarity between a pole run in ’02 and leading the most laps in ’03 were consecutive 12th-place finishes, far from the glory of Victory Lane. It’s a monkey Stewart needed to get off his back in order to truly move forward with his career, even with a title under his belt.
“When you grow up 45 miles from here,” reminisced Stewart, “A period of my life when I was driving a wrecker for a living, I was driving down 16th Street and Georgetown Road, thinking, man, what would it be like to be 150 yards inside that fence, running 200 mph?”
“[So Indy] was like a life-or-death situation for me. Then I got to come here in a stock car, then win it for the first time. That was such a weight off our shoulders. That’s probably what helped us today, not being wound up, being able to be calm and relaxed, ’cause it wasn’t like the untouchable any more. It was easier to put it in perspective, calm down, do what I needed to do, race the race versus saying my whole life depends on this next 15 laps like it was two years ago.”
“I think it shows their whole effort steps up to another level when they come [to Indy],” added Gordon, the only man Stewart has left to catch in a stock car at Indy. “Tony’s game is heightened. You know, it showed today. They were really strong and he was aggressive and made some aggressive moves and won the race.”
And that’s what makes the difference for Stewart here. Stewart just doesn’t want to win – he wants to dominate. Every single time he steps onto this track, he expects to kiss the bricks. No exceptions.
“My best friends are here,” Stewart reminded the crowd in his post-race press conference. “My family is here. People that I don’t get to see very often are all at one place at one time together to watch me do what I do best, to do what I’m passionate about.
“It just adds to this place being a special place. This is what my life has revolved around for the last 20 years of my life, running a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
In all honesty, it’s only one weekend. But it’s that mentality which will make Stewart the man in position to be as dominant at Indianapolis as any other.