Not just Sunday drive Stewart

After Indianapolis 500, he'll scurry to N.C. to race Coca-Cola 600

Indianapolis 500

May 25, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - What if it's closing in on 3 p.m. Sunday and Tony Stewart is leading the Indianapolis 500 with fewer than 20 laps to go?

For any other driver in the 33-car field, there would be no question. The driver would race to the finish. For Stewart, it is different. For him, it's beat the clock, as well as the other cars, because Stewart has to be in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday night to drive the Joe Gibbs Winston Cup car in the Coca-Cola 600, at 5:45 p.m.

"You can theorize all you want," said Stewart, who would not reveal his exact cutoff time for finishing the 500. "But I've got to get out of the car and go to Charlotte."

But will he?

"I gave my word to Joe that I'd be in Charlotte for the start of the 600," Stewart said.

But will he really give up the chance to win the Indy 500 in the closing laps? Would Gibbs fire him if he were late?

"What part of this don't you understand?" Stewart said. "I've got to go to Charlotte."

But even though Stewart said he will get out of his car and even though backup driver Richie Hearn reportedly has been hired to fill in for Stewart should time run out, almost no one can imagine Stewart's giving up a chance at victory in the world's most famous auto race.

Stewart is, in his own words, "addicted to racing." Which, in turn, means he is addicted to winning. For Stewart, there are never enough races.

"I like racing. It's what I do. It's who I am," he said. "There can never be enough wins, I don't think ever. Maybe when I die there will have been enough. Maybe then."

Yesterday, after taking his last practice laps before Sunday, he flew to Charlotte for last night's qualifying session and is not expected back here until tomorrow night.

Last night, he qualified 12th for the Coca-Cola 600, but it didn't really matter, because no matter where he qualified, he will start last at Charlotte as a penalty for missing the pre-race drivers' meeting.

Here at Indy, he will start seventh, on the inside of Row 3.

There is no doubt about how much he wants to win here. In 1999, he became one of three drivers to ever try this double duty. That day, he finished ninth at Indy and fourth at Charlotte, becoming the first to finish both. But after the 600, he said he was so exhausted he didn't know where he was.

That night, he said, "I'll never do that again."

But Stewart is back. And not only back at Indy, but the odds-on favorite to win, a fact he brushes off with, "Big deal. Unless it's helping me drive the race car or keeping me out of an accident, I don't care."

His car owner, Chip Ganassi, said Stewart's favorite status "says a lot about the ability of Tony Stewart." But it also says a lot about Ganassi and his race cars.

Ganassi was the first Championship Auto Racing Teams owner to cross the great divide that has existed between CART and the Speedway since track owner Tony George created the Indy Racing League after the 1995 season.

Ganassi brought his team here last year with Juan Montoya and won the 500. Now, with Stewart, he has a good chance of repeating.

"Tony simply steps in and gets with the program," Ganassi said. "He has experience, race craft, and is one of the few drivers you can get who's outside the circle of open-wheel drivers you can pull in from the outside and get quick results. It nice to have a driver who can step into your car and go fast right away."

Stewart, who is from Columbus, Ind., is inspired. He sat on the Indy pole his rookie year, 1996, and won the IRL championship in 1997. Though a success in the Winston Cup Series, where he won more races than anyone else (six) last season and currently is seventh in the championship points race, winning Indy is his childhood dream.

Because of that, he has gone totally against his "I want to do what I want to do" nature and become the most cooperative subject that personal trainer Al Shuford said he has ever had.

"He is extremely focused on winning Indy," said Shuford, who has been running a training program for the Gibbs race team for three years.

Stewart acknowledges as much.

"It's not been fun, but it has been easy to follow Al's directions," Stewart said. "When he says, `Jump,' I say, `How high and how much hang time do you want?' "

He is a pizza and drive-through window kind of eater. He has always drunk Coca-Cola as if there would be no tomorrow.

"I allow him 2 1/2 Cokes a day," Shuford said. "That's way down from what he used to do."

"In 1999, I ate too many bagels in the morning before the 500 but not enough to last me through the 600," Stewart said. "I drank water like a fish, but I didn't eat anything all day. By the end of the day, I had nothing left."

He began working with Shuford in January, trimming an undisclosed but obvious amount of weight and building up reserve strength to draw on this Sunday.

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