INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – After years of torment, Tony Stewart has mastered his beloved hometown track.
Stewart scored his second career victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, dominating Sunday at the place that caused him a decade of heartache and once even threatened his career.
But he found peace at the Brickyard with his electric 2005 breakthrough victory, and this time made it look easy. Stewart led a race-high 66 of the 160 laps, but was passed by 2003 winner Kevin Harvick on a restart with 20 to go.
He never panicked as he chased down Harvick, even taunting his friend over the radio. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” he called. “Come get you some of this.”
The two-time series champion closed onto Harvick’s bumper and made at least two attempts to pass, only to be rebuffed as Harvick held tight. Stewart finally powered alongside of him with 10 to go, but Harvick wouldn’t relent and the two Chevrolets touched as they drag-raced around the historic 21/2-mile oval.
Stewart held steady, surged into the lead, then seemingly put his orange No. 20 on cruise control for the final 25 miles. With six to go, his in-car camera caught him casually drinking from a water bottle with no hands on his steering wheel as he headed down the straightaway at more than 200 miles per hour.
“I just went down there on the restart and got real, real tight for some reason,” Stewart said. “Kevin got by us and I knew after 15 laps I could get around him. So I was just trying to be patient, got a good run on him off of (Turn) 1 and got by him.
“That’s a hard guy to race there. He’s a clean guy. That’s one of my best friends.”
Stewart frantically pumped his fist through the window as he crossed the finish line at the only place in the world he’s ever wanted to win. After a brief victory lap, he stopped his car on the Yard of Bricks, was embraced by his father, Nelson, and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew. The team then joined him for his celebratory fence climb.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in his only appearance, chased down Harvick to finish second – his best showing on an oval since leaving Formula One last summer.
“I don’t think anyone had anything for Tony,” Montoya said. “His car was way too fast. But second here at the Brickyard, it was awesome.”
Jeff Gordon, the series points leader and four-time Brickyard winner, was third followed by Kyle Busch, pole-sitter Reed Sorenson and Mark Martin.
Harvick faded all the way to seventh after Stewart’s race-winning pass. Jeff Burton, Dave Blaney and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.
The victory made Stewart, the two-time series champion, the favorite for a third title. Six of the past nine Indy winners went on to win the Cup, including the last two, and Stewart himself did it in 2005.
Now he appears poised to rip off one of his trademark winning streaks. He won five of six races during the summer of 2005, closed last year with three wins in the final eight, and now has two in a row.
Stewart had a frustrating start to the season, losing at least four races he should have won, and didn’t reach Victory Lane until the July 15 event in Chicago. He then took his momentum with him on an overdue vacation during NASCAR’s final off weekend of the season, then reported to Indianapolis relaxed and ready to race for his second Indy win in three seasons.
It’s a marked change from his earlier visits to the track, when Stewart would arrive irritable and on edge in his pursuit of the elusive victory. A native of nearby Columbus, Stewart came to Indy as a kid and dreamed of someday winning an Indianapolis 500.
He never did during a short but successful open-wheel career, then made a full-time switch to NASCAR and focused on winning the stock-car race at Indy. But he had his heart broken over and over here, including a 2002 near-miss that devastated him.
In his anger after exiting the car, he punched a photographer and had to beg boss Joe Gibbs not to fire him.
His desire to kiss the bricks never faded, and he often said he’d trade every win and every trophy for just one win at Indy. So when he finally did it in 2005, his celebration was an emotional release.
It freed him from the stress, and made for a playful, casual Stewart all weekend. He was funny and engaging, a big difference from the “Tony the Terrible” who normally patrolled this garage.
“This kid is – he’s matured so much,” crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. “He drove a phenomenal race today. I’m proud of him.”
The race was not so kind to Jimmie Johnson, the defending race winner and Cup champion, or Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, who ended his own personal streak of poor performance by winning here last season, recovered from an early wreck only to slam into the wall when his tire erupted midway through the race. He had to frantically climb from his burning car as flames shot inside the cockpit.
“It’s feast or famine here for us,” Johnson said. “I’m OK. The impact wasn’t bad. The flames had me nervous there inside the car and I lost some eyelashes and the side of my face got pretty hot.”
Earnhardt led 33 laps early and appeared to be the only car capable of running with Stewart. But his handling eventually faded, and he dropped back to fifth place. That’s where he was running when his motor failed, and Earnhardt wound up 34th.
It was a setback in his bid to make the Chase for the championship – he’s fighting for the 12th and final qualifying spot, and is now locked into a tight battle with Kurt Busch, who finished 11th.