Tony Stewart Returns To The Indianapolis 500

This is not an ad for Trackside Online, but it is the number one way I learn most of my racing news. Something may break on Twitter, but it is usually the subsequent e-mail that arrives shortly from Trackside Online that really lays everything out there. It is always the best twenty-two dollars I spend all year.

It was through Trackside Online that I first learned that Tony Stewart will be returning to the Indianapolis 500 this year. For those that have heard nothing of this (because you don’t subscribe to TSO); Tony Stewart is not returning to drive. Instead, he will be involved with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports as the sponsor of the Team One Cure No.77 car through the Tony Stewart Foundation.

The mission for the Tony Stewart Foundation is to provide grant funding to well-qualified organizations serving children who are critically ill or physically disabled; animals at-risk or endangered; and drivers injured in the sport of motor racing. Through the Tony Stewart Foundation, Team One Cure was launched to promote awareness of the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University to benefit cancer treatment breakthroughs in collaboration between doctors and scientists working with both people and pets.

Sam Schmidt represents another part of the foundation’s mission – helping injured drivers. Not only is Schmidt a classic example of someone overcoming adversity, he and Tony Stewart both want to win the Indianapolis 500.

Tony Stewart’s love of the Indianapolis 500 is very well known to longtime fans of this sport. He chose to move to NASCAR for professional reasons. In short, NASCAR offered him the opportunity to earn a lot more money so that he could be in a position to fulfill his dreams in his life after racing. That next chapter is starting now for Stewart after he retired from driving in NASCAR this past November.

Tony Stewart’s passion for winning is also well known to fans. Sometimes that passion bleeds over into his displaying a fiery temper. Stewart has said many times that his racing idol is AJ Foyt, hence his choosing to drive the famous No.14 when he formed Stewart-Haas Racing. Foyt’s famous temper was not the only thing that Stewart had in common with the IndyCar legend. Like Foyt, Stewart also could drive and win in just about anything that had four wheels.

What is less known about Stewart is his philanthropic side. Stewart and Foyt both share a softer side that they are not eager for the public to see. Many athletes and celebrities make sure to assemble a camera crew to capture images of them making hospital visits, in order to show everyone how much they care. Some take it further than that and some don’t.

Foyt and Stewart would never seek out the limelight for the good works they do, but word has still gotten out on both of them. Foyt’s cronies talk of how a little known midget driver might have been badly injured with no insurance or no possible ways to pay their medical bills, only to find out that Foyt covered the whole thing anonymously – simply because he had heard about it through racing circles. Those closest to Foyt say that he has a heart as big as an elephant, but he doesn’t want anyone to know it. To me, stories like that reveal a lot more about a person’s character than those that show up at a hospital only for the photo-ops.

Stewart has taken on that same trait of Foyt’s. He has the outward persona of a real tiger that most of us see. But those that know him say that he is a lot like Foyt in that area as well. He has a strong sense of compassion that he’s not real anxious for the entire world to see. In this world, there are talkers and doers. Tony Stewart is a doer.

Now that he’s no longer driving, Stewart has more time to devote to his official foundation, which is organized to help those he is most passionate about. He has now figured out a way to fuel all of his passions by combining his foundation with racing – at the event he is most passionate about, the Indianapolis 500.

When this was announced Tuesday morning and that the driver would be named later, there was great speculation that Stewart would be driving the car himself. I seriously doubt that will happen. Stewart hasn’t driven an Indy car since 2001. Sixteen years is a long time to go, although it’s been done before. John Andretti went thirteen years before jumping back into the 2007 Indianapolis 500. He finished tenth in 1994 and thirtieth in 2007. Draw your own conclusions.

Some are guessing that the driver may be Danica Patrick, who drives for Stewart’s team in NASCAR. She would have to do “the double” and race in Charlotte that night, in order to do it – but if Stewart is wanting to raise awareness, this might be the way to go. To be blunt, Danica Patrick is no longer moving the needle in NASCAR. She is a mid-pack driver (at best) and is now having sponsorship problems that I won’t get into here.

Like her or not, it’s hard for even the haters to deny that Danica Patrick had success at the Indianapolis 500. She qualified and finished fourth as a rookie in 2005, when she also led nineteen laps. Critics will say that was due to pit stops cycling through, but she led them nonetheless. She also finished third in the 2009 race. In seven races in the Indianapolis 500, she finished out of the Top-Ten only once – when she finished twenty-second in 2008. That was the infamous episode when she collided with Ryan Briscoe on pit row and then stormed down to try and confront him, before security’s Charles Burns interceded.

Danica Patrick left IndyCar after the 2011 season and many fans were happy to see her go. She tended to blame her team for her car being slow and she flat-out rubbed many fans the wrong way. Her supporters always claimed her presence added to the TV ratings, but the ratings after her departure didn’t really support that.

I am one of the few that is ambivalent on Danica. I am not a hater nor a supporter. I wasn’t sorry to see her go, but if she comes back this May – it could be a good thing. IndyCar is in a better place now than it was six seasons ago when she left. Her presence would provide a boost for the Indianapolis 500 and there’s nothing wrong with that. That would be especially good for Tony Stewart’s Foundation, which is all about visibility and awareness.

But if I had to bet on who may fill the seat of the No.77 car – I’d say it will be neither Tony Stewart nor Danica Patrick. I’ll agree with what Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee were saying on Trackside the other night. If it’s a NASCAR driver from Stewart’s team, it may be Kurt Busch, who did the double in 2014. Whether it’s Patrick or Busch, Stewart will have to clear it with Ford to have permission for one of their drivers in a Honda-powered car. It may be easier to get an available IndyCar driver, of which there are many.

Regardless of who drives the No.77 Team One Cure car in May, one thing is certain. It’s going to be great having Tony Stewart back at the Indianapolis 500.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Tony Stewart Returns To The Indianapolis 500”

  1. The current situation with Sam Schmidt’s #77 car is certainly the most exciting thing going on in IndyCar at this moment of the off-season, probably until the first testing times leak out. One of the reasons for that is Tony Stewart who is still loved by many in the Indycar fan community. Another reason is that Sam Schmidt’s team is usually really competitive at the Indy 500. And with teammates James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin having run up front throughout one race each on a big oval last season, the #77 might even be a winning combination. Expert fans of the sport certainly remember that the car in which Dan Wheldon won the 2011 Indy 500 was owned by Sam Schmidt’s team and that back then, his team Bryan Herta Autosport shared their data with that of Sam Schmidt’s other cars, driven by Alex Tagliani and Townsend Bell.

    So if Schmidt adds another veteran/oval specialist to the #77 car, the team might be very strong come the Month of May.
    Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch certainly do both tick this box. And Kurt has even worked with Hinch before when they were teammates at Andretti Autosport.

    Still, I keep reading rumors online that Schmidt is in negotiations with Telmex-sponsored Mexican-German rookie driver Luis Michael Dörrbecker for IndyCar races. There is, however, one driver who would tick both the Stewart-Haas box and the Telmex box, and that guy is Esteban Gutierrez who ran for Haas F1 in 2016.

    Of the above mentioned, the 2 current NASCAR drivers are the only ones who tick the veteran/oval specialist box but Danica has not driven the DW-12 yet and Busch only once.

    So who would be that IndyCar veteran that might be joining this team for the occasion? Is Ryan Briscoe available? Maybe Alex Tagliani is working on something for Indy this year?

    Either way, not announcing the driver right away gets the rumor mill going and that is great exposure for Tony Stewart’s good cause.

  2. One guy who Stewart loves is Kyle Larson, who has shown great interest in doing the double so he could be an option as well. I have to think that this would have involved Brian Clauson in some way had he not been taken from us, history will never know….

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    I think it will be a NASCAR driver, which is fine unless it keeps a driver who wants to be in IndyCar out. Hate to be provincial , but IndyCar needs to take care of its own first.

  4. You are probably right that Tony won’t attempt to drive in the 500 this year. But don’t count him out just yet. I think he would go for it if he thought he could.

    Kyle Busch is someone I would love to see in the 500 and is one of the Nascar drivers that I think might be able to win it.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    At this point, I think I would expect a driver associated with Stewart in some way to fill the seat. I know Brian Vickers’ (who has subbed for Tony when he was injured) name has tumbled around the rumor mill.

    A short tracker would be a very interesting proposition, but I can’t see one without notable pavement track experience getting the ride. It wouldn’t be fair to any of those guys without a lot more practice than is allowed nowadays.

  6. I think the publicity that will come of Tony having a car entered in the race will be huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge!

  7. Great that Tony is back at Indy.But his days as a driver are over.Would love to see him drive the pace car with A.J. driving shot gun.

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