Could We See Stewart In The Indianapolis 500?
One of the things that really bothered me about Tony Stewart stepping out of his stock car last night at Homestead is not that he didn’t get to win a fourth Cup championship. It’s that he never won the Indianapolis 500. I’m sure many NASCAR fans have either forgotten or never knew that Tony Stewart ran in the Indianapolis 500 five times – twice after he switched to NASCAR fulltime. Stewart finished an unremarkable twenty-second in yesterday’s NASCAR season finale, while Jimmie Johnson won his seventh championship. Regardless of the Chase format – that’s impressive!
Although I’m not a huge NASCAR fan, Tony Stewart was my favorite driver. Not because he has his roots in IndyCar, but he was a throwback. He’s a younger version of AJ Foyt. He could drive and win in any type of car, and he had the same drive and passion (some would say temper) as Foyt, as well.
If you’ll recall, Stewart ran in the first three seasons of the Indy Racing League – I think. It’s hard to tell for sure since the IRL had that ridiculous split season in 1996 that ended with the Indianapolis 500 in May. The “new” season started with the next race in New Hampshire, even though it didn’t run until August 18.
Did they really go two and a half months without a race? Yes. There were only five races scheduled in the calendar year of 1996 and two of those counted towards the 1997 season. So two races were run with Lolas and Reynards powered by turbo-charged engines. When the season resumed in January at Walt Disney World – all teams were driving either a Dallara or g-Force chassis powered by naturally aspirated engines that sounded like a sick cow dying in a snowstorm…but I digress.
As kooky as the second IRL season was (1996-97), Tony Stewart won the championship. He won a race, finished second, and had two fifth place finishes in a ten race season that spanned fourteen months. When the IRL reverted to a more normal calendar-based schedule in 1998, Stewart finished third in an eleven race season – picking up two more wins along with a second and third.
After moonlighting that season in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series, Stewart left John Menard and the Indy Racing League completely and moved into Winston (then Nextel, then Sprint, then ???) Cup fulltime.
Along with running the Indianapolis 500 in his three IRL seasons, Stewart did the double two of his first three years in NASC AR. Tony Stewart had a checkered Indianapolis 500 career while driving for John Menard. In his first “500”, Stewart inherited the pole after teammate Scott Brayton was fatally injured in the second week of practice. Stewart led the first thirty-one laps, but his Menards engine let go on Lap 83 and he was done.
The following year saw Stewart start in the middle of the front row and lead a total of sixty-four laps before finishing fifth. 1998 was Stewart’s final year with Menard. He led one lap after starting fourth, but his engine expired on Lap 22 and his day was over – relegating Stewart to finishing dead last.
Stewart and Chief Mechanic Larry Curry had sort of a messy divorce from John Menard. It was bad enough that Stewart left Menard’s to be sponsored by their chief competitor Home Depot, but there was bad blood. Curry would later be convicted of embezzlement from Menard and would spend time in jail. Prior to his legal troubles; Curry, Stewart and Andy Card formed Tri-Star Motorsports as a one-off for the 1999 Indianapolis 500. The car was way more underfunded than the Menard car Stewart had left, but the small team managed a ninth place finish before Stewart headed for Charlotte to complete the double. where he finished fourth – completing the entire 1,100 miles of racing in one day.
In 2001, Stewart joined a four-car assault on the Indianapolis 500 by Target Chip Ganassi. Stewart finished sixth behind Ganassi teammates Jimmy Vasser, who finished fourth and Bruno Junqueira, who wound up fifth. No one knew it at the time, but it was the last time Tony Stewart ever raced in the Indianapolis 500.
He flirted with the idea a couple of times. In 2004, he was spotted sitting in an AJ Foyt car during qualifying weekend. The problem was, he was also spotted by General Motors executives who took issue with him sitting in a car with a Toyota decal. A call to his cell phone was placed, and Stewart immediately hopped out while being shown on television.
A few years ago, Roger Penske offered him a ride for the “500”. A younger Stewart may have taken the offer, but a more mature Stewart didn’t exactly decline it – he just never accepted it, much to the dismay of his fans.
Tony Stewart is now forty-five and will be forty-six before the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500. There is no delicate way to say it, but he’s also a little more portly than he used to be – which will work against you a lot more in an Indy car than it will in a stock car.
As soon as his 2016 retirement was announced, speculation began that he would finally be free to run in the Indianapolis 500 again. I wish I was wrong, but I think that ship has sailed.
Don’t get me wrong – Tony Stewart would love another crack at it. He grew up in Indiana and always dreamed of one day becoming an Indianapolis 500 winner. As a NASCAR driver, he won the Brickyard 400 twice – but I imagine all that did was make him dream of winning the “500” even more.
But Tony Stewart is a realist. He knows he is fifteen years removed from racing a car like this. He also knows a forty-six year-old man does not have the same reflexes that a twenty-four year-old has. Some will point out that Al Unser won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1987 at the age of forty-seven. But Al Unser had driven in five races just the year before – not fifteen years before.
Stewart knows what is required to drive an Indy car and be successful – and the be successful is the important part of that sentence. Tony Stewart is not one to be content riding around in the back of the pack. He wants to be up front challenging for the win. He knows what that requires and he also knows he is probably not physically capable of that.
Stewart has had some severe injuries in recent years. Those things take their toll on a body. I’ve been virtually injury free and my body had diminished quite a bit by the time I was forty-six. Of course, what I wouldn’t give for that now instead of the unexplained aches and pains that go with old age.
While I would have loved to see Tony Stewart win an Indianapolis 500 before hanging up his helmet, I think the window has closed. Some will disagree with me and I’d love to be proven wrong. But I don’t think I will be.
In the meantime, I would like to see some of his attention turned away from NASCAR and have him become an IndyCar team owner. Something tells me that if he did that, he could end up drinking milk in Victory Lane anyway. It seems to have suited Michael Andretti. Maybe it could work for Smoke as well.