When victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway finally came for Tony Stewart in August of 2005, he was understandably overwhelmed.
"This is one of those days, I don’t want it to end," Stewart, then 34 years old, told the Associated Press at the time. "I don’t want to see the sun set. It’s definitely the greatest day of my life, professionally and personally, up to this point."
The win did not come easily, as Stewart had to hold off a hard-charging Kasey Kahne at the end to take the checkered flag at the storied track where he had tried five times previously to win the Indianapolis 500, but never finished higher than fifth. He also had made six attempts to win at IMS after switching to NASCAR from open-wheel racing in 1999, but the best he had done prior to 2005 was fifth, which he had accomplished twice.
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That included 2002, when he started from the pole and led 43 laps — but finished 12th.
And 2003, when he led a race-high 60 laps — but finished 12th again after two questionable pit stops for tires late in the race.
But in 2005, it all came together for the native of Columbus, Indiana, who had long dreamed of winning a major race at Indy.
Stewart took his first lead of the day by passing Brian Vickers with 60 laps to go. Kahne, then only in his second season of racing in NASCAR’s top series, passed Stewart for the lead with 27 laps left in the 160-lap event. The crowd, announced at 250,000, could be heard above the roar of the cars registering their disapproval.
It took a blown tire by Jimmie Johnson to bring out a caution on Lap 144 to give Stewart his opportunity to grab the lead for good, which he did by beating Kahne on the ensuing restart. He then slowly began pulling away for the win, which he punctuated by climbing the catch fence on the front stretch with his team, much to the delight of the fans.
The air conditioning in Stewart’s fire suit had worked only sporadically on the hot summer day and he was exhausted, if jubilant. So before climbing the fence, Stewart laid on the concrete wall at the bottom of the fencing, holding a checkered cloth to his sweaty forehead.
"I’m dying right now," Stewart told the AP, grinning all the time. "Too tired to chase fences right now. Give me five minutes and I’ll be ready."