Senior staff writer
Beyond a doubt, Hoosier racing fans were pulling for Jeff Gordon to enjoy a sixth Brickyard 400 win in his last racing appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or, second best, to see Tony Stewart rejuvenate his career Sunday.
Stewart was the ol’ Tony after qualifying fourth fastest Saturday at 182.82 mph for his 17th Brickyard race. He definitely was upbeat.
“It’s a moral victory if nothing else, for us and the team,” he said after qualifying. “It’s been a rough season so far, so this is a great way to come to your home track.”
Beech Grove Mayor Dennis Buckley expressed his appreciation for Gordon’s accomplishments, as did Beech Grove business owner Mike Heimel, who also acknowledged Gordon’s career but cheered for Stewart.
Stewart, who lives in Columbus, was bolstered emotionally by returning to the Speedway. “That’s what you want when you come home; they (fans) are a big part of this when it comes to keeping your morale up.”
He even joked about returning to the Indianapolis Speedrome that night by saying, “I don’t know whether to be honored by it or if it is a true sign I’m getting old. They don’t normally name races after 22-year old drivers."
Stewart’s comment about it being a rough season is a vast understatement; a sixth-place finish at Bristol stands as his only top 10. He left the Speedway mired in 26th place.
He began Sunday’s race by running as high as second and as low as 12th during the first 100 laps, but a late gamble to stay on the track with worn tires eventually dropped him to 28th.
Stewart served as guest emcee and official starter for the 100-lap Tony Stewart Classic midget car race at the Speedrome. He was back at his open-wheel roots, where he won his first midget car race in 1991 and USAC Regional Series Rookie of the Year laurel.
“Being back at the track where I won my first midget car race against Mel Kenyon, Ted Hines and Michael Lang, I really feel that this is the track where my professional career began,” Stewart said.
He watched as Kyle Hamilton of Danville led all but the first 13 laps and became the race’s inaugural winner.
Although Hamilton won, Verizon IndyCar Rookie of the Year contender Gabby Chavez and Beech Grove’s Kyle O’Gara stole the show.
In his first midget car race, Chaves was third at the end of 75 laps and chose to go to the back of the pack and race for a $10,000 bonus if he would win. Hamilton controlled the final 25 laps, but Chavez still managed an impressive sixth.
O’Gara sustained a damaged engine in a full-sized midget car earlier Saturday. That forced dad Andy O’Gara and the crew to return to a Southside shop and roll out their smaller and underpowered Kenyon midget. O’Gara finished seventh and earned Stewart’s praise afterward.
Yeah, he told me I drove a smart and clean race,” O’Gara said in front his brother and dad, Johnny O’Gara.
Gordon’s unfortunate day
Starting from a disappointing 24th position, Gordon never came close to the day he had sought in his last Brickyard race. He moved up to 15th but spun on Lap 50 and struck the outer wall to avoid Clint Bowyer’s spinning car.
The No. 24 crew worked in intense heat in Gasoline Alley for an hour and made enough repairs so that Gordon could return to the track.
“It was an unfortunate day,” Gordon said. “I feel so fortunate to have just gotten an opportunity to race here. Certainly to have five wins here is just unbelievable as well.”
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch continued his torrid streak by sweeping the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races. NASCAR’s hottest driver has won four of his last five Sprint Cup races after missing the first 11 while recovering from leg injuries at Daytona.
Penske at Speedrome
In prerace ceremonies Saturday at the Speedrome, longtime NASCAR team owner Roger Penske, the winningest car owner in Indianapolis 500 history with 16 wins, was among 12 inductees into the USAC Hall of Fame. Penske and veteran midget car builder Don Kenyon accepted their plaques in person.
Penske reminisced: “Sixty-four years ago my dad took me to the race at Indianapolis. Racing is all about family, the team and the people. I owe thanks to Frankie Del Roy (USAC official) at California. I was in line to get credentials and Frankie said, ‘See that tall man standing over there – he’s Rick Mears, keep an eye on him.’ ”
Penske eventually hired Mears, who won four Indy 500 and six poles at the IMS.
Family members or designated representatives accepted on behalf of two-time USAC stock car champion and 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Fred Lorenzen and five-time USAC national stock car champion Butch Hartman, Clint Brawner, Jimmy Caruthers, Jim Hurtubise, Sheldon Kinser, Larry Rice, Shorty Templeman and Sleepy Tripp.