Senior staff writer
Indiana’s Tony “Smoke” Stewart faces his final Brickyard 400 ride Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The 45-year-old open wheel and stock car champion finishes racing on the same historic track where his racing career was inspired when father Nelson Stewart brought him to the Speedway for his first Indianapolis 500 as a little boy.
The Columbus resident is trying not to get caught up in the emotions of the next few days at the Speedway, where he will race the No. 14 Chevrolet for the last time.
“I’m really not thinking about it,” Stewart said earlier this month at the dedication of his three-sixteenths-mile dirt track inside the third turn. “I’ll have plenty to keep me busy, but I’ll be back for more; it just won’t be on the big track.”
Stewart, a two-time Brickyard 400 winner, is bolstered by two recent events: his first Sprint Cup win since 2013 on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., June 26, and driving a borrowed USAC midget car on the small dirt track at the Speedway, where he could slide wide and sling dirt earlier this month.
Stewart snapped an unprecedented string of 110 Sprint Cup races without a win by nudging Denny Hamlin out of the lead on the final corner at Sonoma. The win should give Stewart a spot in The Chase, which he won in 2011, but he has to remain among the top 30 in points. He missed the first eight races this season while recovering from an offseason dune buggy accident.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to myself,” Stewart said after his road course win. “I’m still happy about my decision to make the change I’m making next year, but after Jeff (Gordon) set the bar pretty high last year winning a race in the clutch to get to the last race at Homestead, just to be able to be in the Chase … there’s a lot that can happen still. But I’m proud of where we are.”
Stewart finished fifth in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway and solidified his 30th position in points, the minimum spot for a winner to make The Chase, with a 31-point lead over rookie Brian Scott. He has won three Cup championships, one IndyCar title and USAC’s triple crown in 1995, the only driver to do so.
Upon retirement, Stewart, a former USAC regional midget series Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis Speedrome, will have plenty to keep him busy. He is co-owner of the four-driver Stewart-Haas team, owns Eldora Speedway and two more dirt tracks in Illinois, a World of Outlaws championship team and the All-Star Circuit of champions and founded the Tony Stewart Foundation,
And he will be able to pick and choose the bullrings that he wants to race. The little dirt track at I MS will be his playground.
When he was greeted by the media July 5, Stewart shook hands with reporters, grinned and said, “Did you think you’d ever see this in your lifetime?”
For Stewart and aspiring USAC midget car drivers, the track itself represents a step into the future.
“This is a short-track racer’s dream,” Stewart said. “It’s pretty awesome. They haven’t been able to do it for the first 100 years but they can do it for the next 100 … I’m addicted.”
IMS President Doug Boles had the dirt track installed to honor Stewart’s career and to re-emphasize a once popular path to IndyCar and NASCAR. There are no grandstands, little outer fencing and no lights.
Stewart, who provided some input for the track, praised Boles, who gave him a glass bottle filled with dirt used to carve out the track. Stewart later climbed in a borrowed midget car and raced eight laps against USAC veteran Bryan Clauson and retired driver Sarah Fisher.
“I’m not sure he (Boles) doesn’t want to have races here,” said Stewart. “My pavement career happened because of this. That’s been one of the keys to our success. If you can control a car on tracks like this, that’s what you have to have to race an Indy car or a stock car. The skills they learn and pick up at an early age running these cars goes a long way.”
Stewart then explained his driving style: “I always want to drive something like this. I want something that I’m in control of. I want something that I can drive ... not the car driving me.”
Through July 9, he has won 49 Cup races in 600 starts, 15 poles and more than $122 million in winnings.
No matter how Sunday’s race turns out, Stewart’s heart and soul will always remain with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the small dirt bullrings as well.