Tony Stewart greets another team’s crew member during qualifying for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Thursday. Despite having his mind set on winning one of NASCAR’s longest races, Stewart still dreams of racing and winning the Indy 500.AP photo
CONCORD, N.C. — Tony Stewart has team co-owner Gene Haas in town, teammate Ryan Newman on the pole and both of his World of Outlaws drivers racing at a nearby dirt track.
No doubt, Stewart has enough distractions to keep him from thinking about his favorite race, the Indy 500, or last year’s frustrating finish in the Coca-Cola 600.
At least for a bit.
“My dream of running Indy and winning Indy is still there,” said Stewart, who’s still looking for his first victory during Memorial Day weekend. “It’s never going away.”
Although the two-time NASCAR champion and former open-wheel star hopes to race at Indy again, he believes getting there will take a bigger commitment than he has time for these days.
“It’s a scenario where you can’t just show up and get in one of those things anymore and be good in them,” said Stewart, the 1997 Indy Racing League champion. “To really put together an effort to not just try to make the Indy 500 but try to win the Indy 500 you have to start the season with a team and run through the Indy 500 if you’re even going to have a shot at it.”
Stewart drove both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in 2001, a grueling 1,100-mile odyssey that included a plane ride, intravenous fluids, an early spin and two top-10 finishes. He hasn’t entered the 500 since — it’s impossible to race both now because Indy’s start time has changed — and isn’t sure when it will happen again.
“Even if they switched (the 500 to Monday), I don’t know if it’s feasible to do it,” he said. “It’s not just the logistics of making the two races. It’s everything that leads into the preparation and testing and the time behind the wheel of getting acclimated to the cars again. That’s more important than just the sheer logistics of race day.”
Stewart would gladly settle for a win in the 600, NASCAR’s longest race and one of the sport’s crown jewels.
No one would be surprised to see him in Victory Lane, either.
Stewart, second in the Sprint Cup standings, is coming off his first win as an owner/driver with Stewart-Haas Racing. He won last week’s All-Star race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in front of Haas, who was at the track for the first time since completing a 16-month federal prison term for tax fraud.
The founder of Haas Automation, a California-based machine tool builder, pleaded guilty to defrauding the government of more than $34 million in taxes. He spent 10 months in a federal corrections institution in Lompoc, Calif. — a stay he compared to military basic training — followed by six months of home confinement.
“It’s a lot like being stricken with cancer or being hit by drunk driver; your life changes,” Haas said Thursday, speaking publicly for the first time since his release. “What you try to do is put the pieces back together as best you can and move on and try to minimize the damage that happens in your life. It was an unfortunate event in my life. I stood up and took responsibility for what happened.
“I just want to get on with my life. There’s not much I can do about it. It’s in the past. I don’t have any hard feelings against anybody. These things happen, and if you dwell on them too long, you’ll never go forward.”
Haas celebrated the victory with Stewart long into the night, spent every day this week at the race shop and even attended Stewart’s 38th birthday party.
Although Haas still has plenty of catching up to do, he was able to track the team’s progress from afar. And he’s been as impressed as anyone with the quick turnaround. Stewart has five top-five finishes in the last six points races, plus the All-Star victory.
Haas enjoyed one top-five finish — Johnny Sauter was fourth at Loudon in 2007 — in his previous seven years as a NASCAR owner.
“We’d been in business for six years, and really, we were just struggling,” Haas said. “We needed to make a change or tear the place down and turn it into a truck stop. It wasn’t fun any more going to the races and losing all the time.”
Stewart knows the feeling, especially on Memorial Day weekend.
His best finish in five starts at the Indy 500 was fifth in 1997, and he’s 0-for-10 at the Coca-Cola 600. Last year’s race near Charlotte was the most disheartening one of them all, too.
Stewart was leading the race with three laps to go when he flattened a tire. Kasey Kahne zipped by Stewart as he drove onto pit road and cruised to the win.
Stewart wound up 18th, stormed into his hauler and kicked at the cabinets.
He’s much calmer these days, and for good reason.
“It is something that was supposed to be so stressful to do this this year, to take this on,” Stewart said. “It was supposed to add stress, but it has actually taken stress away. I don’t understand why. I don’t really have a good answer for it.”