David Poole, Charlotte Observer
INDIANAPOLIS – Of all the laps he’s turned at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the one Tony Stewart will always remember was probably the slowest one – and he was going in the wrong direction.
“I am going to take a little detour, boys,” Stewart said to his crew over the radio moments after winning the Allstate 400 on Sunday. “I am going to enjoy this one.”
He rolled slowly down the frontstretch toward Turn 4, his helmet off and his window net down, drinking in the cheers from a crowd of more than 200,000 at the historic track that he said, during a prerace lap, was his “holy grail.”
He eased his No. 20 Chevrolet around the track’s north end, then down the long backstretch toward the second turn.
There, in a suite that Stewart has at this track barely 40 miles from his hometown of Columbus, Ind., waited his family and some of his closest friends who’d just seen, at long last, something they’d waited a lifetime to see.
Stewart, a 34-year-old Indiana native who cut his racing teeth on short tracks from one corner of this state to another and who has never tried to hide his aching desire to taste victory here, had won at the Brickyard.
He climbed atop the wall, slapped a high-five through the fence with one fan, and popped open a cold soda he’d been handed by his crew back over on the frontstretch.
“TONY! TONY! TONY!,” the crowd yelled as he toasted his family in the suite and his friends – all of them, symbolically, – who’d been there to witness him do the one thing he’d always most wanted to do.
“Today,” he would say a few moments later, “has been my entire life.”
With just 11 laps left in what would turn out to be Stewart’s fourth victory in the past six Nextel Cup races, it appeared as though this dream might be denied.
Stewart started 22nd and had clawed his way toward the front slowly, making it up to fifth by the halfway point. Finally, on Lap 100, he passed Brian Vickers to take the lead and then took off, building an advantage of nearly four seconds at one point.
But it wouldn’t be that easy. It couldn’t be here, at the 2.5-mile track where Stewart had been in five Indianapolis 500s and six Cup races before without finishing better than fifth. Not at a place where his frustrations had boiled over so badly after a particularly frustrating setback during his 2002 championship season that it nearly cost him is ride with Joe Gibbs Racing.
When teammate Bobby Labonte’s blown right-front tire brought out a caution on Lap 116, Stewart came in for what would be his final pit stop. He’d need a few fuel-saving circuits under subsequent yellows to go the distance on fuel, but in a race slowed 10 times by cautions that certainly appeared doable.
But after that pit stop, Stewart faced his biggest challenge of the day. Kasey Kahne, who’d spent three summers in Indiana racing on the same tracks in the same midget and sprint cars for the same team Stewart had before he’d moved on, got his No. 9 Dodge working right and mounted a charge.
Stewart staved off Kahne for a while, but on Lap 134 Kahne powered by to take the lead. Stewart chased Kahne’s No. 9 Dodge doggedly, but it wasn’t until points leader Jimmie Johnson crashed on Lap 145 to bring out another caution that Stewart got the chance he really needed.
First, however, came an anguished debate with crew chief Greg Zipadelli over pit strategy. Stewart initially wanted to come in for fresh tires, but Zipadelli argued they should stay out to keep track position.
“I’m too nervous to make the call,” Stewart said finally.
“Stay out,” Zipadelli said.
As Kahne passed the entrance to pit road, Stewart made a move toward the commitment line and then quickly swerved back onto the track. He had what he was going to have to try to get this job done.
“We aren’t done yet,” Stewart told Zipadelli. “I’ve come too far to give up now. I want this more than I want anything.”
Zipadelli answered, “I know.”
As the leaders came to the restart on Lap 150 in the 160-lap race, Stewart marshaled his desire and talent toward the task at hand.
“I am just trying to pull something out of my bag of tricks here to see what I have left,” Stewart said.
The winning move wasn’t terribly tricky, however. He laid back a bit on the restart and then dove hard into Turn 1, edging himself underneath Kahne and sliding into the lead. Kahne fought back as hard as Stewart had earlier, shadowing Stewart’s zigs and zags down the straightaways.
When Kahne won his first Nextel Cup race at Richmond earlier this year, he had to battle Stewart to win it. Afterward, Stewart was the first to congratulate the 25-year-old on that win.
Here, it was Kahne trying to deny Stewart a coveted victory. With three laps to go, Stewart had padded his advantage to eight-tenths of a second. But would it hold up? Did he have the fuel, or would cruel fate intervene and break Stewart’s heart at Indianapolis one more time?
“Four more corners,” Stewart’s spotter said as the No. 20 came off Turn 4 and saw the white flag.
The massive crowd in Indy’s grandstands rose to its feet
There would be no heartbreak this time. Only elation.
“YES!” Stewart yelled after taking the checkered flag. “I love you guys, you’ve helped me live my lifelong dream today. I appreciate it.”
The team was prepared to help its driver continue the fence-climbing ritual he’d started after a victory at Daytona last month, supplying a ladder and offering to make the climb with him.
“I’m too tired to get to the top,” he’d said from inside the car.
After the slow victory lap, Stewart did get part of the way up the fence. But then he came down and reclined on the wall.
“I feel like crap right now,” said Stewart, who also took over the Nextel Cup points lead with the victory, “but in five minutes I am going to feel real good.”
No way it took that long.