Tonys Holy Grail

Well, lo and behold, it’s Tony’s big day again.

On Sunday, Tony Stewart will attempt to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 for the second time, and in light of what happened the last time he did so, it’s really quite amazing.

In 1999, Stewart competed in both races and nearly won the Coca-Cola 600. He might, in fact, have won at Lowe’s Motor Speedway had he not been so exhausted at the end that he collapsed getting out of his car. He performed like a champion that night, but it was too much. Stewart’s own conclusion, at the time, was, “Well, I’m never gonna do that again.”

Two years have passed, though, and here we go again.

“I had pretty much decided… I guess I didn’t really decide that I wasn't coming to Indy this year, but I really hadn’t had anybody call and no one had really approached me about trying to come back to Indy for this year,” Stewart said. “On our first off weekend (April 14-15), I got a phone call from Andy Graves who works with Chip (Ganassi) on the Winston Cup team and he goes, ‘You want to go back to Indy this month?’”

Asking Tony Stewart if he’d like to go back to Indy is like asking Pedro Martinez if he’d like to play catch.

Stewart would probably be too modest to admit to this in any formal fashion, but at the foundation of his being, I think he believes it’s his destiny to, at some point, win the Indianapolis 500. Obviously, given his Hoosier upbringing, it’s a lifelong goal, but it’s not just the fact that Stewart grew up in Indiana.

The Indianapolis 500 is the greatest spectacle in racing. The slogan fits. There is nothing else like it on Earth. Anyone who drives a race car and aspires to greatness would obviously love to be in position to win the planet’s most famous event. It’s a prospect too wondrous to ignore.

“Well, let’s put it this way,” Stewart said. “I mean, I remember when I was in grade school and high school, every day when the school bell would ring at 20 (minutes) after three, the first thing I did was rush home, turn the TV (month of May coverage) on, and I got in a lot of trouble with my parents because homework didn't get done, because I wouldn't pull myself off the TV until 6.

“When you grow up 45 minutes south of (Indianapolis), the whole month of May, this is it. There’s nothing else that matters, especially when you’re a young driver. So to say that my racing résumé will never be complete… I’ve had a great career to this point, but there’s a space that’s at the top of that that only one thing can be added to and that’s the Indianapolis 500 victory. So I can’t express in words, to be honest, how much this race means to me. It’s just, when you grow up in Indiana and you’re a race-car driver, this is all there is and this is all you think about.

“So to not have an opportunity to come back here would be devastating, but the only way to come back here is to make sure you’re with the right team. That’s why, until Chip (Ganassi) called, I didn’t feel like there were any opportunities that were worth pursuing; and when Chip called, I said this is the right opportunity to come do this the right way, and do it the way that I feel like we need to do it to have an opportunity to win.”

So Stewart is back. He’s learned from his mistakes. He’s prepared himself diligently. And there’s a certain aura of magic that accompanies him as he goes back home to Indiana.

The work that has gone into this “project” would impress a four-star general. Stewart has turned himself over to a trainer, Al Shuford, who has supervised both his workouts and his diet. The poster boy for Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and Coke has been working out and learning to love (well, tolerate) fruits and vegetables. Once all this is over, I’d hate to see what happens the first time Stewart passes a Pizza Hut with a buffet banner.

When Graves began this whirlwind of events that, within a few weeks, put Stewart in a top-notch car for the Indy 500, Stewart had just finished seventh in the Virginia 500 at Martinsville. He then went to Talladega and finished second. At California Speedway in Fontana, Stewart finished fourth. Then he won his first Winston Cup race of the season at Richmond. Last week, he finished third in The Winston.

Over the past four races, Stewart has more Winston Cup points than any other driver. Entering Martinsville, he was 17th in the points standings. Now he’s tied for seventh. After a slow start, Stewart is the hottest driver on the circuit.

Could he win Indy? Yes. Could he win Charlotte? Yes. Could he win both? It’s tempting to say that stranger things have happened, but I’m not sure that, in American motorsports, they ever have.

On Sunday, Tony Stewart turned 30. At that age, could he still be destiny’s child? I guess we’ll find out on Sunday.

Photos

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