INDIANAPOLIS - Among 300,000 people yesterday, Tony Stewart literally looked at his family on every lap of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard - especially his father, Nelson.
That's how personal and somehow private a place Indianapolis Motor Speedway is for the versatile and volatile driver from nearby Columbus, Ind.
After nine years of bitter disappointments here had ended for him, after he'd finally won the 400 after losing it six times - and the Indy 500 five times - Stewart revealed just how deep in his marrow it all was and is.
"I've got a suite over there [overlooking] Turn 2," Stewart said, "and for the last 50 laps my dad never left the front rail of that thing. Once, when I had about a three-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 [in go-carts]. He's like, `Use your head.'
"And I'm thinking, `Dad, I got here [to Indy, and to NASCAR's elite Nextel Cup division] 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."
After so much heartbreak here, Stewart found himself 10 laps from victory but with a major challenge from Kasey Kahne. If it had come down to serious confrontation, Stewart said: "I knew I was going to do something stupid. And I knew Kasey wasn't."
Running risky zigzag patterns to break the draft on Kahne on Indy's long straightaways, Stewart stayed cleanly out front the rest of the way, as the throngs in the grandstands - and the family in the suite - stood and roared for the native son.
Stewart had often said he'd trade his one NASCAR championship, in 2002, for just one win at Indianapolis, "in a heartbeat."
But yesterday he got the best of both worlds. The Allstate 400 at the Brickyard marked his fourth win in the past six Nextel Cup races and sent him into first place in the standings, launching a serious run at a second championship.
Jimmie Johnson, who had been the points leader entering the race, finished 38th and fell to second place in the series standings, 75 points behind Stewart.
"This is one of those days that I don't want to end," Stewart said. "I don't want to see the sun set.
"This is probably - well, it's definitely the greatest day of my life up to this point. Professionally, personally. ... Since I was a little kid, I've always wanted just to compete at the Brickyard."
Under the race's 10th and final caution with less than 20 laps to go, running behind the pace car in second place gave Stewart time to agonize. He began to wonder aloud via radio to crew chief Greg Zipadelli whether he should pit for gas and fresh tires.
"I'm too nervous to make the call," Stewart said on the radio.
"Stay out," Zipadelli said, knowing track position was vital because passing is so difficult on the track that was built in 1909 for cars that ran 70 mph at the time.
Maintaining second place gave Stewart his fateful chance to pounce. Moments after the restart, he charged past Kahne with less than 10 laps left.
The zigzag patterns took Stewart to rarely used areas of the track surface, where debris had built up, and he risked cutting a tire. But he did what he felt he must, because "I felt the reward was worth the risk," he said.
As the reward began to sink in, Stewart looked forward to the all-night celebration he, his family and all their friends from Columbus would have.
How would the party begin? Stewart said matter-of-factly, "We're going to destroy my Turn 2 suite first."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.