Kyle Busch brought his No. 18 Skittles Toyota Camry down Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s lengthy front straightaway, a victor in the most dominant performance in NASCAR’s 23-year history at the track. Busch pulled his machine down to the pit wall to high five his pit crew as cheers erupted from the grandstands.
However, they weren’t for Busch. Despite his dominance, the back-to-back winner wasn’t the story of the day. Instead, the cacophony rose for Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, two retiring Hoosiers who crossed the line together one last time to end their final race at the Brickyard.
Stewart and Gordon rallied from separate issues to tally finishes of 11th and 13th, respectively, in their final starts at the 2.5-mile IMS.
Stewart, a two-time Brickyard 400 winner, started his final Brickyard third after leading the field during the pre-race pace laps as an honor from NASCAR and IMS. The native of nearby Columbus, IN, quickly rose to second when the green-flag fell, but faded to sixth over the opening green-flag run. Stewart spent the rest of the opening 200 miles running in the back-half of the top 10.
Stewart’s day saw a significant twist when a caution flag fell as he was driving down pit road on lap 121. Unable to make his way off of pit road before the leaders came, Stewart was trapped a lap down as a result of the penalty. Adding insult to injury, a penalty for speeding on pit road also kept the Hoosier from taking a wave around.
As Stewart attempted to get his lap back, Gordon struggled.
Running his first race since the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in place of the injured Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Gordon found difficulty adapting to the handling characteristics of the 2016 downforce package. Early on, Gordon’s lone noteworthy moment came in the form of a pass of his former machine, the No. 24 driven by Chase Elliott.
However, Gordon slowly rose, climbing to ride just outside of the top 10 as the race entered its final 50 laps. That’s precisely where he would stay over the final runs, unable to march forward despite crashes from those around him as poor restarts and failing pit strategy doomed NASCAR’s winningest driver at IMS.
Both drivers would benefit from the race’s late cautions, with Stewart rejoining the lead lap courtesy of the free pass on lap 153 and Gordon rising past crashed competitors.
In the end, the two drivers found themselves competing one last time to the checkered. Smoke prevailed during NASCAR overtime to finish 11th, with Gordon ending his day two spots back in 13th.
The finishes weren’t what fans had hoped for from the two Hoosier stars, but that didn’t matter. As the two ran side-by-side across the line on the cool down lap, window nets down, it didn’t matter if they’d finished first or 40th, the fans were happy to cheer them on.
“I knew when we got the checkered we just didn’t want to come in just yet,” Stewart said. “I wanted to run one more lap and Jeff was around us and before that last green run I told my spotter to go get his spotter and said after this thing is over, we need to go do a lap around here together because this most likely is the last time we’ll both get a chance to do that. I couldn’t think of a better guy to share that moment with than Jeff.”
The duo will get one last hurrah next weekend at Pocono Raceway, where Gordon will again fill in for the ailing Earnhardt, but this race was special. For the final time, fans were able to watch Stewart’s daring moves as he searched to gain ground. As Busch dominated in his Skittles Toyota, fans once more got a taste of the Rainbow Warrior on his home track.
Emerging from their machines amid a media circus on pit road, Gordon and Stewart engaged in a long embrace, enjoying their final moments as competitors at the Brickyard. With that moment gone, they, along with their massive fanbases, begin the process of moving on.
“Tony and I have gone through a lot over the years,” Gordon said. “But, he and I have become really good friends. I was with him when he got hurt this year. And to see what he’s done and how tough he is as a competitor; I’ve always known what a great guy and what a great race car driver he is, and now I know more about who Tony Stewart really is. I’m just so proud that I was able to be here and race with him in his final race. Maybe, I don’t know! I thought last year was going to be my final race. You never know with Tony Stewart. But it meant a lot to me to be able to stand in front at the driver’s meeting and recognize him and then do that pace lap here at the end.”
“I can say that just ranks in the top three coolest moments of my 18 years in this series.” Stewart said. “To share that moment with Jeff here at Indianapolis I don’t know. I don’t even have the words for it. That is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
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