Taking it one race at a time

Spectacle of drivers trying to run 1,100 miles in Indy, then Charlotte, is a thing of the past

May 30, 2010|By Tania Ganguli, TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS

CONCORD, N.C. — Tony Stewart drank so much water that weekend he forgot to eat.

So, 50 laps into the 300-lap Coca-Cola 600, his second race of the day, Stewart was hungry.

By the end of the nearly 1,100 miles Stewart ran in May 1999 at two tracks in two states, racing two totally different types of cars, he was so exhausted and undernourished he couldn't even drive himself home. His girlfriend drove with a sick Stewart collapsed in the car.

"When you're done with the 600 after running Indy, and the flight and helicopter rides and police escorts and all that during the day, you're very, very content to lay your head on a pillow," Stewart said. "And (you) still feel like it's not stopped moving yet."

Today America's two major racing series will run two of their biggest races of the season back-to-back. The Indy 500 is set to start at 1 p.m., and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled for 6 p.m. Stewart is one of only three drivers who have done both races in the same day, to have finished all 1,100 miles. He did that in 2001, the second of two times he attempted the feat. John Andretti and Robby Gordon also have pulled the double.

To induce drivers to try, Speedway Motorsports Inc. President Bruton Smith offered a $20 million bounty to the driver who could win both. Nobody is attempting it this year.

With so much competition in each series and so much riding on each race, the Indy-NASCAR double might be a thing of the past.

"They could offer $100 million to run both of those races or win both of those and it wouldn't affect my decision, because I'm only going to go there if I feel like I can be competitive," Jeff Gordon said. "To be competitive, I would need to be in those cars all of the time. This whole Mario Andretti jumping from one car to the next, to the next, to the next, that doesn't happen anymore."

It's long been a dream of four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson's. He loves racing different types of cars so much, he often runs the Grand-Am series' Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. But some obstacles stand in the way of his completing this double.

First is the time constraints. Second, his relationship with Chevrolet prevents him from racing a Honda vehicle, which all Indy cars are. Third, he'd want to find a team with which he could have a successful run. Fourth, Indy cars scare his wife, Chandra, who is pregnant with the couple's first child.

Last year a prerace broadcast showed footage of scary IRL crashes. It showed the wreck that killed Scott Brayton, who had a young family at the time.

"I remember her saying, 'You'll never drive one of those cars!" Johnson said, "I've got four big hurdles to clear, but if I can clear them I will be there and drive them both."

Johnson would want to have a chance at winning the Indy 500 if he tried it. The difference between open-wheel cars and stock cars makes it very challenging for drivers to switch between the two.

Stewart was an exception, a former IRL driver who took immediately to NASCAR. Both times he ran both races in one day, Stewart finished in the top 10 in each. On the other hand, when Robby Gordon ran both in 2004, he finished 29th in the Indy 500 and 20th in Charlotte.

Part of what makes it so hard is both sports take top-notch teams to be successful, and top-notch teams have top-notch drivers who race full seasons. That leaves little room for an interloper.

"It's very difficult to imagine if our best driver, Jimmie Johnson, could just pop in there and do as well as (pole-sitter Helio) Castroneves," Jeff Burton said. "I don't know if it's a thing of the past, but I think it'd be very, very difficult to be successful at both."

Johnson speculated that two of the drivers with the best chance at success in both places are Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Indy 500 in 2000, and Stewart.

"As a team, we would probably have one of the better chances, but I don't know," Montoya said. "I don't even think about it right now, to be honest."

Stewart said last week that for him the dream of running both, and of winning the Indy 500, was over.

"I guess I have kind of given up on it to a certain degree," Stewart said. "I made my career path and chose my path of where it's going. … I'm not going to say it'll never happen again, but I'm 99.9 percent sure you'll never see me sit in an Indy car again in competition."

tganguli@tribune.com

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