Tony Stewart has said all along since announcing that this would be his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season that he wanted to go about his business with as little fanfare as possible.
He even has said, repeatedly, that he didn’t want a farewell tour similar to the one that evolved for Jeff Gordon during Gordon’s final full-time season a year ago.
So when Gordon turned up literally out of nowhere (well, actually, he came from France, where he had been vacationing with his wife, Ingrid) to sub for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart could not have been happier.
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Jeff Gordon is doing me the biggest favor anybody could possibly do this weekend for me. I’m just glad he’s back, to be perfectly honest.
Gordon, you see, has been mobbed by the media at Indy.
That has taken much of the media attention away from Stewart in what will be his final Sprint Cup race at the Columbus, Indiana native’s home track. And that is just fine with Stewart.
"Absolutely accurate," Stewart said when asked about the scenario Friday at IMS. "I had a couple of friends send me messages yesterday and they were furious about it going, ‘Oh, he is stealing your thunder?’
"I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Jeff Gordon is doing me the biggest favor anybody could possibly do this weekend for me. I’m just glad he’s back, to be perfectly honest."
Gordon is subbing as driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet while Earnhardt continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms.
"I’m sad that Dale, Jr. is not here," Stewart said. "But if Dale can’t be here and we know why and we respect why he is not here, I couldn’t be happier about the one guy that is here in his place. I’m glad I get to race with him one more time."
Gordon’s surprise presence has helped Stewart do what he does best: focus on racing.
Stewart admitted that while he knows there are lots of family and friends in attendance, he has no idea how many.
"I’ve done a great job, because I have no clue how many friends and family will be here this weekend," Stewart said before the first of two Friday practice sessions. "It was not my responsibility to get them all here. I don’t know how many of them are here.
"I will see them after the race is over. But I’m going to work here in a minute, and that is all I care about doing for three days."
Stewart was eighth-fastest in Friday’s first practice, turning his top lap at 179.655 miles per hour. He was 24th-fastest in the second practice as far as single-lap speeds (280.505 mph), but was a respectabe sixth in terms of best average speed over 10 consecutive laps (176.664 mph).
The three-time champion in NASCAR’s top series has won twice previously at the Brickyard, and no doubt would like to add a third race win to his final-season portfolio that already includes one win on the road course at Sonoma.
"I’m probably more prepared for a Brickyard than I have been any other year," Stewart said. "I feel like we had a really good tire test here, felt like our car drove really well."
More importantly, Stewart feels like he physically is back in top form after battling a back injury that caused him to miss the first eight races this season, and a broken-leg injury in 2013 that caused lingering problems prior to that.
"When you finally get going and you start running up front with guys that you are used to running with again, then you are getting text messages after the race saying, ‘Hey, it was glad to see you up there with us again,’ " said Stewart, who finished second last Sunday at New Hampshire. "That is the stuff that makes you feel like, ‘Hey, we are back where we belong now.’ "