Could We See Stewart In The Indianapolis 500?

One of the things that really bothered me about Tony Stewart stepping out of his stock car last night at Homestead is not that he didn’t get to win a fourth Cup championship. It’s that he never won the Indianapolis 500. I’m sure many NASCAR fans have either forgotten or never knew that Tony Stewart ran in the Indianapolis 500 five times – twice after he switched to NASCAR fulltime. Stewart finished an unremarkable twenty-second in yesterday’s NASCAR season finale, while Jimmie Johnson won his seventh championship. Regardless of the Chase format – that’s impressive!

Although I’m not a huge NASCAR fan, Tony Stewart was my favorite driver. Not because he has his roots in IndyCar, but he was a throwback. He’s a younger version of AJ Foyt. He could drive and win in any type of car, and he had the same drive and passion (some would say temper) as Foyt, as well.

If you’ll recall, Stewart ran in the first three seasons of the Indy Racing League – I think. It’s hard to tell for sure since the IRL had that ridiculous split season in 1996 that ended with the Indianapolis 500 in May. The “new” season started with the next race in New Hampshire, even though it didn’t run until August 18.

Did they really go two and a half months without a race? Yes. There were only five races scheduled in the calendar year of 1996 and two of those counted towards the 1997 season. So two races were run with Lolas and Reynards powered by turbo-charged engines. When the season resumed in January at Walt Disney World – all teams were driving either a Dallara or g-Force chassis powered by naturally aspirated engines that sounded like a sick cow dying in a snowstorm…but I digress.

As kooky as the second IRL season was (1996-97), Tony Stewart won the championship. He won a race, finished second, and had two fifth place finishes in a ten race season that spanned fourteen months. When the IRL reverted to a more normal calendar-based schedule in 1998, Stewart finished third in an eleven race season – picking up two more wins along with a second and third.

After moonlighting that season in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series, Stewart left John Menard and the Indy Racing League completely and moved into Winston (then Nextel, then Sprint, then ???) Cup fulltime.

Along with running the Indianapolis 500 in his three IRL seasons, Stewart did the double two of his first three years in NASC AR. Tony Stewart had a checkered Indianapolis 500 career while driving for John Menard. In his first “500”, Stewart inherited the pole after teammate Scott Brayton was fatally injured in the second week of practice. Stewart led the first thirty-one laps, but his Menards engine let go on Lap 83 and he was done.

The following year saw Stewart start in the middle of the front row and lead a total of sixty-four laps before finishing fifth. 1998 was Stewart’s final year with Menard. He led one lap after starting fourth, but his engine expired on Lap 22 and his day was over – relegating Stewart to finishing dead last.

Stewart and Chief Mechanic Larry Curry had sort of a messy divorce from John Menard. It was bad enough that Stewart left Menard’s to be sponsored by their chief competitor Home Depot, but there was bad blood. Curry would later be convicted of embezzlement from Menard and would spend time in jail. Prior to his legal troubles; Curry, Stewart and Andy Card formed Tri-Star Motorsports as a one-off for the 1999 Indianapolis 500. The car was way more underfunded than the Menard car Stewart had left, but the small team managed a ninth place finish before Stewart headed for Charlotte to complete the double. where he finished fourth – completing the entire 1,100 miles of racing in one day.

In 2001, Stewart joined a four-car assault on the Indianapolis 500 by Target Chip Ganassi. Stewart finished sixth behind Ganassi teammates Jimmy Vasser, who finished fourth and Bruno Junqueira, who wound up fifth. No one knew it at the time, but it was the last time Tony Stewart ever raced in the Indianapolis 500.

He flirted with the idea a couple of times. In 2004, he was spotted sitting in an AJ Foyt car during qualifying weekend. The problem was, he was also spotted by General Motors executives who took issue with him sitting in a car with a Toyota decal. A call to his cell phone was placed, and Stewart immediately hopped out while being shown on television.

A few years ago, Roger Penske offered him a ride for the “500”. A younger Stewart may have taken the offer, but a more mature Stewart didn’t exactly decline it – he just never accepted it, much to the dismay of his fans.

Tony Stewart is now forty-five and will be forty-six before the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500. There is no delicate way to say it, but he’s also a little more portly than he used to be – which will work against you a lot more in an Indy car than it will in a stock car.

As soon as his 2016 retirement was announced, speculation began that he would finally be free to run in the Indianapolis 500 again. I wish I was wrong, but I think that ship has sailed.

Don’t get me wrong – Tony Stewart would love another crack at it. He grew up in Indiana and always dreamed of one day becoming an Indianapolis 500 winner. As a NASCAR driver, he won the Brickyard 400 twice – but I imagine all that did was make him dream of winning the “500” even more.

But Tony Stewart is a realist. He knows he is fifteen years removed from racing a car like this. He also knows a forty-six year-old man does not have the same reflexes that a twenty-four year-old has. Some will point out that Al Unser won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1987 at the age of forty-seven. But Al Unser had driven in five races just the year before – not fifteen years before.

Stewart knows what is required to drive an Indy car and be successful – and the be successful is the important part of that sentence. Tony Stewart is not one to be content riding around in the back of the pack. He wants to be up front challenging for the win. He knows what that requires and he also knows he is probably not physically capable of that.

Stewart has had some severe injuries in recent years. Those things take their toll on a body. I’ve been virtually injury free and my body had diminished quite a bit by the time I was forty-six. Of course, what I wouldn’t give for that now instead of the unexplained aches and pains that go with old age.

While I would have loved to see Tony Stewart win an Indianapolis 500 before hanging up his helmet, I think the window has closed. Some will disagree with me and I’d love to be proven wrong. But I don’t think I will be.

In the meantime, I would like to see some of his attention turned away from NASCAR and have him become an IndyCar team owner. Something tells me that if he did that, he could end up drinking milk in Victory Lane anyway. It seems to have suited Michael Andretti. Maybe it could work for Smoke as well.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Could We See Stewart In The Indianapolis 500?”

  1. I was always hoping that Tony would be in another Indy 500, and that Jeff Gordon would ride in one. This was probably the year if Gordon was going to do it so it looks like that one is not going to happen. If Tony Stewart would consider it, it almost would have to be next year.

    Maybe there is hope that Kyle Busch or Joey Logano will give it a shot at some point in the near future. You know some of these drivers have to be thinking about it if they could make it work.

  2. Should Tony Stewart run the Indy 500? In my opinion yes. The Indy 500 is hard, but there’s no particular reason to think he wouldn’t be competitive. Indycar has a number of older veteran drivers who are competitive year in and year out. You can’t really think that Townsend Bell (who runs top 5 every year) is in that much better shape or preparedness than Stewart.

    Will Stewart run the 500? I don’t think so. I’m not sure why, but he seems really resistant to doing open wheel. I would expect him to run USAC or World Of Outlaws and maybe Le Mans and that’s about it.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I’d certainly like to see it, but I’m not betting on it. The best chance of it happening would be if Roger Penske’s offer still stands. I’m guessing it doesn’t (not this year… 6 Penske cars? crazy talk).

    One would hope he will be a boon to the dirt track scene next year, though. It would be cool to see him in the Hoosier Hundred. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t at the Chili Bowl and Knoxville Nationals at the very least.

  4. I have to be honest here: The desire to see fine drivers from other series – and Stewart is indeed one of the finest – compete in the 500 clashes with my worry that having so many one-offs diminishes the appearance of the race. We all know that driving an Indycar isn’t easy; it’s a knife-edge of traction and aerodynamics on ovals with walls so close that disaster is just a fraction of a hairs-breadth away. But if a lot of non-series drivers routinely compete, then maybe the appearance of the skill needed will drop? Even if the skill that’s actually necessary does not?

    Yes, it’s about appearances. I’m not saying that Stewart couldn’t drive that race. Oh hell no, not with his history; on the contrary, he’d be one of the fastest to get up to speed, and one of the most competitive if he had a decent car. Like Busch was. And like Gordon would be if he ever tried it. The Cup guys would know all about knife-edge traction and aero issues with walls looming so close, better than anyone from WEC/IMSA, any of the FIA Formula series, or any other series besides Indycar itself. But again, the point is perception: How would so many non-regulars participating reflect upon the series regulars?

    But I’m torn. Not just because I enjoy other series drivers, but also because the race has had such a long history of actively working to attract drivers from elsewhere. It’s not inaccurate to say that such efforts are as much a part of tradition of the 500 as the milk in the winners circle. It almost feels like a limitation to want to avoid one-offs, not to mention a repudiation of the whole “If you can qualify, you can race” spirit that’s been a part of the 500 for years (but was injured greatly by Tony George in the infamous decision that led to The Split).

    And honestly: Drivers from other series are fun to watch. I know that no current F1 drivers claim to have any interest in the race. But it still intrigues me to think about, say, Räikkönen doing it (“There’s a car below you on this turn”… “Leave me alone I know what I am doing…”). And outside the race, I always thought Vettel would be a publicity hit with the younger crowd. Outside of F1, there are many who are enjoyable both off and on the track, and that’s even before looking at all the NASCAR drivers who’d be eminently qualified, competitive immediately, and fan friendly.

    I don’t know… I both like and am apprehensive at the notion of getting more “outside” drivers into the race. Right now, the “like” is winning just because I want to the race grow, plus I like the history when it was the focal point for the entire world. But the apprehensiveness also has a voice in my head (so many voices there…). And its arguments have merit. I’ll just have to leave that question up to fate and the people actively involved in the race, and charge myself to enjoy it as it is. Where the Indianapolis 500 goes from here is not something I can predict. I just continually hope it’ll always be in a positive direction.

  5. As much as I would love to see it happen, I know it won’t. I would be just as happy seeing him involved with the race in a team owner role. I just don’t think either of those are near the top of his To-Do list.

  6. I love Tony and had mentioned him as a pace car driver for the 101 running of the 500.
    Do I think he will ever race in it again? No his racing skills are gone do in part to age and his accidents. He will do his dirt car bit for the fun of it.
    I would love to see him become a part owner or owner of a team but nobody but Tony knows that.
    I went too one Daytona 500 because it was on my bucket list and Tony lead almost the entire race but for one of those last few lap wreaks like we saw yesterday ruin his day.
    I wish Tony well and thank him for all the memories he gave us.My only wish was that it would of been in an Indy Car.


  7. I’d love to see Tony get involved with IndyCar as an owner. Maybe at first with a smaller team such as AJ Foyt or ECR.

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