INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – What separates Tony Stewart from so many of the drivers plying their trade on the world’s racetracks these days is his passion for the sport.

For Stewart, it’s being in the race car, at the racetrack and part of the racing community that gets his blood flowing.

Few people could understand just how much finally winning a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway means to the Indiana native, who fulfilled his lifelong dream Sunday with a victory in NASCAR’s Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

It came – finally – after years of frustration and failure at the track in both his first love, the Indianapolis 500, and then, after he moved to NASCAR in 1999, the Brickyard race.

“I wish everybody could have the feelings that I have right now,” said Stewart, who grew up 45 minutes from the speedway in Columbus, Ind. “I wish everybody could experience this, because for somebody that appreciates it like I do, I mean, it’s the coolest feeling in the world.

“I mean, I hope Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., guys that are buddies of mine, I hope they all get a chance to feel what I feel today and be that excited about winning a race that’s this prestigious.”

This is just the latest success for Stewart, the hottest racer in NASCAR with four victories in his last six races. The Indy win boosted him past Jimmie Johnson – who crashed in the race and finished 38th – into first place in the season standings, 75 points in front heading into next Sunday’s road race at Watkins Glen.

And, as deeply as he felt about winning at his beloved Indy, Stewart will quickly put it behind him, moving on to a week only a true racer could love.

Stewart will spend the next three days in Knoxville, Iowa, watching the team he owns featuring driver Danny Lasoski in the World of Outlaws series attempts to defend its title in the Knoxville Nationals, the biggest sprint car event of the year. Then, he will head for Watkins Glen in upstate New York to race on Friday in the Rolex Sports Car Series, on Saturday in the NASCAR Busch Series race and, finally, on Sunday in the Cup race.

And it’s more than just driving race cars that attracts the 34-year-old Stewart to the sport. He is a real fan.

In the moments of ecstasy after he drove under the checkered flags on Sunday, Stewart told a story that illustrated just how big a fan he is.

“Kenny Schrader came up to me today and said he had bought something really cool, then he mentioned A.J. Foyt’s name,” Stewart explained. “He was talking about the first Champ Car race that A.J. Foyt won. I thought, “Man, he bought the car.”

“He goes, “No, I bought the trophy.’ Kenny knew that I’m the only person in the whole garage area that would probably appreciate that, how jealous I was that he had the first Champ Car trophy that A.J. Foyt ever won.”

Of course, Stewart got a fine new trophy for winning the Brickyard and joining four-time Indy 500 winner Foyt in the track’s pantheon of victors. And Stewart had big plans for it.

“I was telling some photographers my dog is going to be really mad tonight,” Stewart said. “She’s 6 pounds and sleeps right by my knees. She’s going to have to move over because I’m sleeping with that trophy in the bed tonight.

“I’m serious as a heart attack. I’ll wake up, I may have stab marks in my back from the edges, but I’m sleeping with it tonight. I’m scared somebody will get in my room and get it. That’s how serious I am about it. I mean, it means that much to me.”

This was a very different Tony Stewart from the angry young man sometimes seen over the years after frustrating losses or dealing with the pressure of being a celebrity.

The sometime bad boy said the combination of moving back from NASCAR’s hub in North Carolina to the comfortable environment of Columbus earlier this year, as well as learning to enjoy life and stay positive, has changed his life.

“It’s the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him in seven years,” said Greg Zipadelli, the crew chief on his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet. “It’s the first time in seven years I’ve seen him that he can enjoy himself and realize what he’s capable of and enjoying his accomplishments.”

And now, Stewart no longer has to explain to people how much winning at Indy would mean to him.

Zipadelli likened Stewart’s situation to the late Dale Earnhardt taking 19 agonizing years to win the Daytona 500.

“Believe me, the harder and the more emphasis you put on things, sometimes the harder it is for them to come,” he said. “You know, so many things stack up against you rather than in your favor sometimes. Believe me, I was hoping that that wasn’t going to be the case. But for six years, it surely was.

“But, hey, we did it and we can look at it and say we did it; we accomplished it as a group, a team. I know Tony will enjoy this win here the rest of his life.”

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