Tony Stewart confers with teammate Ryan Newman - NASCAR photoEnlarge Photo
Unlike most of his competitors in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, reigning champion Tony Stewart lives in Columbus, In, a relatively short drive south of Indianapolis, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.5-mile oval that's one of Smoke's favorite circuits.
He's never won the Indianapolis 500 despite several close calls but Stewart has captured the Brickyard 400 Cup race twice, in 2005 and 2007. To say that he's excited to be heading back to Indy this weekend would be an understatement. He's been preparing for the second most important race on the calendar (after the Daytona 500) by racing in the World of Outlaws sprint car series (and winning) last weekend; he's planning on going to Eldora Speedway in Ohio on Saturday night after Cup qualifying to run his Sprint cars.
Stewart returned to Columbus this past Sunday morning after racing in Williamsburg, Pa. the night before and has plenty of appearances to make over the week before practice and qualifying begin for this Brickyard race on Saturday. And he expects plenty of family and friends around - both at home and at the track - to support his endeavors for Stewart-Haas Racing over the weekend.
Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) recently found out that they're losing U.S. Army sponsorship for teammate Ryan Newman's No. 39 next year but the team co-owner feels confident he'll be able to remedy that problem and keep his plans in place to have a three-car Sprint Cup team in NASCAR next season, with Danica Patrick driving the third SHR Chevrolet.
"It was definitely a huge disappointment that we were going to lose the U.S. Army, but it's not something we have had a lot of at our team; we have not lost a lot of sponsors," he said. "They have been a lot of fun to work with and they've been a very dedicated group. We are going to miss out having them on board next year."
But Stewart thinks it's all coming around: "There's a lot of new companies that we are seeing in the sport and we are seeing that in our organization. We are going to hopefully be able to try to find somebody else."
While some might feel more pressure performing at home, Stewart believes his 2005 Cup victory at The Brickyard "took a huge weight off our shoulders. We just go at it every year with the attitude that we know what it takes to win there and we try to do our best to accomplish it."
With a new crew chief in Steve Addington this year, Stewart has been "really happy with what Steve and I have been able to do together in such a short amount of time; to be halfway through the season and have three wins together already, obviously I'm really proud of that," he said. "Steve knows it's a big week for me; it's a big weekend for everybody so everybody gets really geared up for it. Hopefully we'll get started on Saturday and have a great weekend."
The race meeting has been named the Super Weekend with both NASCAR's Nationwide and Grand-Am series racing at Indy for the first times, alongside the Cup teams that have been coming here since 1994. "I know it's a big deal it's big for us and the more people that are in the stands, the more we enjoy it as drivers. I'm really excited to watch the Grand-Am race on Friday and see how it turns out," as the sports cars and prototypes race on the Grand Prix road circuit at IMS.
Like everyone else, he hopes the addition of these two races to the weekend schedule will bring fans back that were turned off a couple of years ago when the Cup cars experienced tire troubles. "It's gaining that momentum back," Stewart rationalized. "That year we had the tire troubles really made a huge impact on the race," he said.
With Saturday NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying occurring at roughly the same time as Sunday's race, Stewart is excited not to "have the big temperature swing this year that we normally have. We have qualifying on Saturday at two o'clock and the track is going to be very, very hot (temps are predicted in the mid-80s with mostly sunny skies) and it should stay consistent through the whole qualifying session. I think that's going to make it right as far as guys not trying to sandbag and get an early spot and have a cooler race in the actual qualifying runs."
He's grateful for the seat technology and various safety improvements that have come from the equipment manufacturers that make the drivers as comfortable as possible in the cars. "Though Indy gets hot, you're still running fast and you get a lot of air flow in the car - but you're still whipped at the end of the day."
In addition to his other duties at Indy, Tony Stewart will be the "in-race" reporter for ESPN, which begins its broadcast duties for NASCAR with this race.