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Aumann: Similarities abundant between Stewart, hero Foyt

December 03, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

LAS VEGAS -- Duo share first names, championships, but more importantly -- driving style

Anthony Wayne Stewart and Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. may have been born 36 years apart, but they share much more than the same first names and a numeral on a race car.

Strong-willed. Hard-headed. Determined. Opinionated. And supremely confident in their abilities to drive anything -- and everything.

So even though Tony Stewart won the race and the title at Homestead, he fully expected his hero and mentor to "still tell me what I did wrong." When the call from Super Tex came later that evening, Stewart braced himself for the inevitable critique -- but A.J. Foyt had nothing but praise for his protege.

Stewart had finally driven the perfect race. And even Foyt had to admit it.

"You've got a lot of great race drivers but you have very few champions," Foyt said in an ESPN interview taped before the Homestead race. "I think that's just the fire in your belly. You give it that extra little bit where another guy might be happy for second. That's what makes a champion.

"You can tell when a guy's going to be a good race driver just by the way he adapts to everything. Tony ran great in midgets, he ran great in sprint cars, the dirt championship cars and then drove stock cars. I think that's an ability you're born with."

The parallels in each of their lives -- particularly when it comes to the Indianapolis 500 -- are truly uncanny.

Both made it to the top on talent rather than money. Stewart's father was an Indiana high school teacher who took out a second mortgage to further his son's racing career. Foyt, the son of an auto mechanic, lived in a rough, tough Houston neighborhood during the Depression.

Both watched their first Indianapolis 500 from the grandstands. Stewart was there with his father, small enough to fit in the luggage compartment of the bus that brought them to the track. For Foyt, it was the night after he had driven at the old 16th Street Speedway -- just a few hundred feet from Indy's Turn 1 but a world away, in terms of spotlight and speed.

Tragedy struck each during their rookie year at Indy. For Foyt, it was the death of friend Pat O'Connor on the 1958 race's first lap. It was an incident which he admitted made him question whether he had the fortitude to succeed with that much at stake. For Stewart, it was the death of teammate Scott Brayton in a crash during practice just days after Brayton had won the pole for the 1996 Indy 500.

Foyt went on to win the 500 a record-breaking four times on his way to seven USAC titles. Along the way, he added seven NASCAR wins -- including the 1972 Daytona 500 -- and shared the victory podium with Dan Gurney at LeMans in 1967.

Getting his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy may wind up being the only thing missing from Stewart's equally impressive resume, although he's won two Brickyard 400s to go along with his three NASCAR championships.

Like countless other kids, Stewart grew up wanting to be like Foyt. But Stewart somehow bridged the chasm from hero worship to hero emulation, turning that dream into reality.

"I think I met A.J. the first time I believe around '91 or '92," Stewart said. "I got a chance to go to the speedway in Indianapolis during the month of May, and I got to meet him in the garage. Then when I was racing in USAC around '95, I got the opportunity to be a crew member."

Stewart was assigned to Eddie Cheever's No. 14 pit stall. But Cheever was involved in a frightening first-lap accident with Stan Fox, and the car was damaged beyond repair even before it completed one circuit.

"My job was to work what they call a dead man valve on the fuel tank," Stewart said. "So it's not a real high-tech job or important job, but nonetheless, I got an opportunity to work on the crew. But our race lasted eight seconds, unfortunately."

That didn't deter Stewart, who eventually wound up behind the wheel of a Foyt machine not long after.

"I got a chance to drive a Silver Crown car for A.J. and George Snider," Stewart said. "I got to be around him a lot more and that friendship kind of grew, and then he gave me an opportunity to test for him in Phoenix in '95."

When the Indy Racing League was formed in 1996, Foyt offered Stewart a chance to drive one of his cars. But Stewart had a standing offer with Harry Ranier to run Pontiacs in what was then the Busch Series, and that turned out to be the deal-breaker.

"A.J. wanted me to make a decision of not doing both," Stewart said. "I tried to do both divisions and Ranier was willing to let me do that, but A.J. wanted me to focus strictly on the IndyCar. I actually ended up not taking the IndyCar offer because of the relationship I had with the Raniers."

So instead of driving the No. 14 for Foyt, Stewart ran two full seasons with John Menard, winning the 1997 IRL title before going full-time into NASCAR. And Stewart then completed the circle when he asked Foyt for permission to use that numeral on his Cup car.

"When he was talking about the No. 14, I said it would be a great honor for you to carry that number," Foyt said. "Knowing Tony, I knew he'd do nothing but charge with it. To see the No. 14 win the championship, [I'm] awful proud of that."

Stewart may have finally run a race that Foyt couldn't criticize, but his hero had to have the last word.

"Man, it's too bad I wasn't a lot younger when you came along because you couldn't beat me."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.