"Old" Stewart Back At Indy
July 26, 2007 | 9:47 A.M. EST
After what has been a frustrating season full of near-misses, one which also included a highly publicized accident with teammate Denny Hamlin at Daytona earlier this month, Stewart has found his championship form once again after claiming victory at Chicagoland Speedway two weekends ago.
While that fact alone would make many competitors shudder, there is even worse news on the horizon as the NEXTEL Cup Series visits Stewart’s home track this weekend – the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Growing up in Indiana and every year watching the Indy 500 and the whole month of May leading up to it, a race at the Brickyard is more than just a regular points race," said Stewart, a native of nearby Rushville, Indiana. "It’s always been a big race to all of the Cup drivers, but then when you grow up in Indiana, it just makes it that much more important."
While the passion for the historic track has always lived inside Stewart, the race itself hasn’t always been the most memorable. From 1999 until 2004, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet scored two top-fives and three top-10s in six career starts. However, since his memorable victory in 2005, things have changed for Stewart and he comes into the weekend with a renewed passion to kiss the yard of bricks on Sunday afternoon.
"It’s a lot more enjoyable," Stewart said of visiting Indianapolis Motor Speedway since his triumph. "Especially all the years before we won, that was the most frustrating part of going to Indy. It was increasingly more frustrating each year that went by before we won. Having to answer the question, ‘What would it be like to win?’ Since 2005, we’ve only been back once, but going back you don’t have that big weight on your shoulders and that question of, ‘What is it going to feel like?’ You know what it’s going to feel like if you win it. You know how much you appreciated it and in all reality it makes it easier to focus on what you’re trying to do instead of having to deal with the circus that’s going on around it."
Along with the importance of winning in front of his hometown fans, this weekend’s event has become a barometer of who will win the NEXTEL Cup Series championship at year’s end. Six times since the Allstate 400 was put on the NEXTEL Cup calendar in 1994, and twice in a row coming into this year’s event, the Indianapolis race winner also celebrated with a series championship at year’s end.
"It just seems to be if you have the package that’s right to win there, it’s a package that pretty much keeps you ahead of the game at a bunch of the tracks that we run in the Chase (for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup) too," said Stewart. "It’s just one of those places where if you can run well, it seems like your program is where it needs to be for the Chase."
If Stewart can keep his Chicagoland momentum and return to his old form this weekend, all the "disappointing season" talk will officially come to an end – only to be replaced with discussions of a third championship for the driver of the Home Depot machine.