News & Media


Aumann: Stewart ends Hoosier drought at Indy in 2005

July 26, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Be it climbing the fence or kissing the bricks, an exhausted and emotional Tony Stewart soaks in his first victory at Indy. (Autostock)

Ever since Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its doors for competition more than a century ago, there always has been a strong connection between the speedway and its native sons.

No fewer than seven Indiana-born drivers have celebrated victory in the Indianapolis 500, beginning with Joe Dawson in 1912. But after Mauri Rose's third 500 win in 1940, the pipeline connecting Hoosiers to the Brickyard's winner's circle suddenly dried up.

Three's company


Tony Stewart is optimistic about a third Brickyard win and a three-car future.

There were some near-misses -- Gary Bettenhausen came oh-so-close to ending the family's longtime Indy jinx when he suffered a mechanical failure while leading in the late stages of the 1972 race -- but locals wondered if there would ever be another Indiana native to be first across the yard of bricks.

As a kid growing up in nearly Columbus, Tony Stewart had the opportunity to learn firsthand about Indy's storied history. He's told many times the story of riding to the track on race day with his father, tucked in the luggage rack of the charter bus.

Getting first to race at Indianapolis -- and then to win -- was Stewart's obsession from that point. He made good on the first vow when he started on the pole for the 1996 Indianapolis 500 after teammate Scott Brayton was killed in a practice accident. But despite leading a total of 122 laps in five 500 starts -- ninth all time among non-winning drivers -- Stewart never finished better than fifth in the Memorial Day classic.

Even after he moved full time to NASCAR, Stewart continued to be snakebitten at Indy. In 2002, he won the pole and led 43 laps but faded to 12th at the finish. The following year, he dominated the middle portion of the 400, only to have issues on pit road that once again relegated him to 12th.

After finishing fifth in 2004, Stewart thought perhaps the tide had turned. But after qualifying in the middle of the pack for the 2005 edition, there weren't many folks who thought that would be the year when Stewart would finally break the hex.

Starting 22nd, Stewart bulled his way into the top five by the race's midway point and found himself in a battle with Kasey Kahne at the front of the field with less than 30 laps to go. But there was a problem. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli did the calculations and came to the conclusion that Stewart didn't have enough fuel to get to the checkered flag without doing some conservation.

But with a chance to win at Indy, Stewart wasn't having any part of the discussion.

"[Zipadelli] was trying to get me to save fuel," Stewart said in his post-race interview. "I wasn't saving an ounce of fuel. I said, 'I'm racing for the win. I'm not going to lay down and run second to save fuel.' I just couldn't do it. If I ran out of fuel and ran 32nd or something, that's where I was going to have to be."

Kahne eventually went by on Lap 133 to grab the lead, but Stewart stayed in Kahne's tire tracks, hoping to catch a break. And it came in perhaps the most unlikely of circumstances. Points leader Jimmie Johnson cut a tire and slammed hard into the wall, bringing out the race's 10th and final yellow with 14 laps remaining.

Under the caution, Stewart and Zipadelli discussed their options. Should they pit for fresh tires and a splash of fuel but give up precious track position? Or should they stay out and hope Stewart could find enough grip in his worn rubber to repass Kahne?

"I'm too nervous to make the call," Stewart said over the radio at the time. "You're going to have to call it, bud."

Zipadelli decided keep Stewart on the track, a move which worked like a charm when Stewart made his move in the south short chute between Turns 1 and 2 -- almost directly in front of the suite where his father was watching the race.

"As time has gone on, I think after we won that first one in 2005, it's just taken a huge weight off our shoulders."

--TONY STEWART

Stewart made a clean pass of Kahne, then began bobbing and weaving on the straightaways, trying to keep Kahne from catching enough of a draft to close in on the No. 20 Chevrolet. And every lap, Stewart could see his father cheering him on to victory.

"I've got a suite over there [overlooking] Turn 2, and for the last 50 laps my dad never left the front rail of that thing," Stewart said. "Once, when I had about a 3-second lead, I slipped once in Turn 2, and when I come back by the next time, he's got his headset off and pointing to his head, just like he did when I was 8 years old. He's like, 'Use your head.'

"And I'm thinking, 'Dad, I got here for a reason. I know what I'm doing. Just let me do it.' That's what made it hard. But it's also what's making it so gratifying and so special right now."

Stewart held off Kahne by five car-lengths, setting off a raucous fence-climbing celebration that lasted well after most of the estimated 280,000 in attendance were long gone from the facility.

He promised to sleep with the trophy -- if he even remotely considered the idea of sleep in the first place.

"This is one of those days that I don't want it to end," Stewart said afterward. "I don't want to see the sunset. This is probably, definitely, the greatest day of my life at this point professionally, personally. I couldn't ask for more."

Even now, Stewart still looks back on that race as one that removed the pressure he felt in trying to win at Indianapolis in front of his family, friends and fellow Hoosiers.

"As time has gone on, I think after we won that first one in 2005, it's just taken a huge weight off our shoulders," Stewart said this week. "[Now 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."