Best of the Brickyard, No. 1: Hoosier Daddy
Good things come to those who wait. No one knows that better than Columbus, Indiana, native Tony Stewart, who spent an entire decade trying to win on the track he considers sacred ground, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Stewart grew up racing on dirt throughout the Midwest, graduating to the Verizon IndyCar Series, where he competed in the Indianapolis 500 five times between 1996 and 2001, twice doing the Indy 500 — Coca-Cola 600 doubleheader. In fact, to this very day, Stewart remains the only man to finish on the lead lap in both races on the same day, an enormous accomplishment.
But Stewart never won the Indy 500 in those five tries, finishing a best of fifth in 1997.
Likewise, in four IROC races from 1998-2002, Stewart managed a runner-up finish, but could never get to Victory Lane.
And Stewart’s first six Brickyard 400s, all with Joe Gibbs Racing, were colossal exercises in frustration: In 2002 and ’03, Stewart led a whopping 103 laps but finished 12th both times.
At long last, Stewart was final able to seal the deal in 2005, when he passed the Ray Evernham-owned Dodge of Kasey Kahne on a restart with 11 laps to go and held on to win by 0.794 seconds in front of a crowd of 280,000 people. It was the realization of a lifetime of hard work and high hopes.
"You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it," said Stewart. "When I was in USAC trying to make a living as a race-car driver, I drove a tow truck for a guy I raced sprint cars against. I would drive down Georgetown toward 16th Street, parallel with the frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running 200 mph.
"I got a chance to do that, and finally, after years of trying to win, be it in Indy cars or stock cars, I got to know what it feels like, to see that view coming down the front straightaway, seeing the checkered flag and knowing that I was the first driver to cross the stripe, versus the second, third or fourth-place guy. I had wanted that moment for so long, and I finally got it."
One of the things that made the victory so sweet for Stewart is he knew how tough the race was to win. In fact, 15 of the first 20 Brickyard 400 races were won by guys who were either Sprint Cup champions already or would go on to become champions.
"I think the cream rises to the top," said Stewart, who also went on to win the Brickyard a second time in 2007. "There’s no slouches who win at the Brickyard. It’s always the cream rising to the top for this event.
"It’s always been a racetrack where the guys who are fast all day always end up winning the race. It’s never been a situation where somebody won a race that didn’t earn it and didn’t deserve it," said Stewart. "You don’t get anything easy at Indianapolis. You have to earn it, and if you’re off, you’re not going to win. You can’t make something happen there that isn’t supposed to happen. So if it’s your day, it’s going to be your day, and if you’re off, you’re not going to make it your day by trying harder. You just have to have everything right. It has to be right."