Memorable Memorial

Few race days have ended with so many people having so many reasons to celebrate.

Memorial Day Weekend is annually the biggest in American motorsports. This one promised to be as memorable as any, and few could be disappointed in the outcome.

A genuinely giddy winner at Indianapolis, Helio Castroneves; a genuinely relieved winner at Charlotte, Jeff Burton.

"This is a great day of racin'," said Burton.

The first half of Sunday's doubleheader belonged to the "Captain," Roger Penske, whose cars swept the first two spots in the Indianapolis 500, a race Penske had already won a record 10 times before Sunday. It was Castroneves, an Indy rookie, who carried Penske to victory lane.

There was obvious irony a couple of hours later, when another rookie carrying the Penske flag, Ryan Newman, started from the pole in Charlotte. It was enough to remind everyone of the budding days of the Penske dynasty, in the late-1960s and early-1970s, when “The Captain” and the late Mark Donohue often enjoyed what they termed "The unfair advantage."

But Newman, the beefy young Hoosier with a short-but-flashy past and unlimited future, suffered the ultimate embarrassment on the 12th lap. Leading from the drop of the green, but feeling the heat of Jeff Gordon in his near wake, Newman lost his footing between the third and fourth turns. He looped his Ford, cracked the wall, and retired to the lonely confines of the garage.

It's rare that a racer can't pass along the blame for something like that, but Newman knew the score and, with no other choice, fell on his sword.

"It was just inexperience and impatience, I guess," he said. "My hope for this year was to learn, and this is something I'll learn from."

Newman didn't need all of that Purdue education to know it's best to keep all four wheels pointed in the right direction.

Penske's Charlotte hopes would rest on Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield, but the sunshine-to-moonlight 600 forces teams to find a series of combinations in order to win, and neither of Penske's veteran stockers found the moving target.

When it counted most, in the final quarter of Sunday night's marathon, Burton and his Roush Racing team found the target. Finally.

Within 100 miles of the checkered flag, it was looking like it'd be Bobby Labonte who turned around his below-par 2001 season.

But Labonte's chances disappeared in a cloud of spin-induced tire smoke, and instead it was Burton who returned to form by winning the Coca-Cola 600.

"We kept going to race tracks and people kept saying, 'This is your race track; this is where you can turn it around.' But we never did it," said Burton, who was an amazingly-low 25th in points before Sunday.

Sunday night, in NASCAR's longest event, Burton finally did it. It was the first win since Phoenix last November for Burton, who won 15 times between 1997-2000. It was also the first win of 2001 for the Jack Roush racing stable, a modern-day force that has had a team-wide slump this year.

"Hopefully this will give us confidence and remind us that we still can do it," said Burton. "This is hard. It's really, really hard to do this competitively week-in and week-out. We don't know what we're gonna get when we go to Dover (next week)."

As dominant as Burton was at the end - he won by three-plus seconds over Kevin Harvick - what people should eventually remember most about this year's Memorial Day weekend was the guts and talent of Tony Stewart.

Sixth at Indianapolis, third at Charlotte, and a full 1,100 miles in two very different racing disciplines. Obviously, something like this might never happen again, and it might be years before people realize how big an accomplishment it was.

"Where'd he finish tonight?" asked Burton. "Third? And he was sixth at Indy. I'm proud of him."

If there had been another 10 laps or so to Sunday night's race, Burton might've been more scared than proud, given how quickly Stewart was moving at the end. Pontiac was easily the fastest car on the track in the closing laps. Ironically, if only he had even more miles, he would've had a chance to cap his doubleheader with a win.

Two years ago, when his Indy-Charlotte doubleheader ended, Stewart was flat on his back next to his Winston Cup car, exhausted. Sunday night, after his remarkable achievement, he wasn't only upright, but ready to roll on.

"I'm pretty pumped up right now," he said. "I don't feel too bad. If I could find a Late Model and a dirt track tonight, I'd go run it. The doctor asked me how I felt at the end as far as sharpness. I said, 'We were the fastest car on the track at the end.'"

It was a great finish to a day that started with plenty of question marks and anxiety. First, a series of accidents slowed the early stages of the Indianapolis 500. Then came the short rain delays.

But Stewart not only made it to Lowe's Motor Speedway in time for the 600, he made it with time to spare, arriving nearly a full half-hour prior to the start - "We had a helluva fast airplane," he said. To fight dehydration, he received intravenous fluids on the plane trip from Indy, and that, he said, was the toughest part of the day.

"That needle… I figured I was gonna pass out," said Stewart. "I'm not scared of hitting the wall at 200 mph, but I'm afraid of that needle. This was no pin needle. This one looked like they'd used it on a horse."

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