Home Again In Indiana

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Having grown up in the towns of Rushville and Columbus, Ind., - 45 minutes from the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway - and having raced in all the feeder series that should bring a successful young racer to the starting grid of the Indianapolis 500, the 2.5-mile oval known as the Brickyard is the cornerstone of Tony Stewart's career. From the time he first strapped himself behind the wheel of a go-kart at age seven in nearby Westport, Ind., Stewart's eyes have been set on Indy.

Now at age 33, Stewart has competed in the Indianapolis 500 five times, while Sunday will mark his sixth Brickyard 400 start. Stewart feels at home at Indy, but that home has shown Stewart some tough love over the years.

He has led a total of 122 laps in his five Indy 500 starts, but victory has eluded Stewart, at times, quite cruelly. After leading the first 32 laps as an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1996, a faulty pop-off valve eventually ended Stewart's day on lap 82. In the 1998 Indy 500, Stewart's engine grenaded after passing Greg Ray for the lead on lap 21.

His NASCAR tenure at Indy hasn't been any kinder. In the 2001 Brickyard 400, Stewart was a threat to win for all but the last 23 laps. There, Stewart glanced off the turn two wall as he raced with Dale Jarrett toward the lead. "I was just trying too hard," admitted Stewart. In 2002, he scored the pole with a new track record and led four times for 43 laps before finishing a disappointing 12th. And last year victory was again in Stewart's sights - he led three times for 60 laps - but a slow final pit stop and an ill-timed caution late in the race combined to give the Indiana native another 12th place result.

Despite the pain of those setbacks, Stewart keeps coming back to the Brickyard. He has to. He's logged too many miles and come too close to victory to not want an Indy win more than the next guy. And in the 11th running of the Brickyard 400 - a span of time that has seen Stewart go from aspiring USAC driver to former Cup series champion - his desire to win remains omnipotent.

"Take the one thing in your life that you're the most passionate about and you'll have a good understanding of what Indy means to me," Stewart said. "There's at least something in everybody's life that they're very passionate about, and for me that's winning at the Brickyard. The fact that it comes around only once a year is the hard part. It's not like everyday you can work to accomplish that goal. I only have one chance out of every 365 days to win at Indy."

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