INDIANAPOLIS - For the often irreverent Tony Stewart, this place is sacred ground. It has a spirit, and a soul.
Stewart, the Indiana native who fulfilled a longtime ambition last year when he won the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wants to reclaim this chunk of terra firma in the 2006 version of the race.
For Stewart, this is the asphalt and brick equivalent of his sport's field of dreams. Until he won here, Stewart's obsession with the place almost devoured him.
"You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it," Stewart admitted while making preparations for the next run around the historic bricks in tomorrow's Nextel Cup event.
He recounted his days driving a tow truck in the city, and how as he worked his way down the street next to the old Speedway, Stewart would let his mind jump the fence and then see his hands grab the wheel.
"I would wonder what it would be like running 200 miles an hour over there. I got a chance to do that, and finally, after years of trying, to win," he said. "I got to know what it feels like, to see that view coming down the front straightaway, seeing the checkered flag and knowing that I was the firstdriver to cross the stripe. I had wanted that moment for so long, and I finally got it."
Stewart said his memories of the world's most famous racetrack are some of the earliest he has. In his younger days, Stewart's family would travel from his hometown of Columbus, just 40 miles from Indy, to watch the races.
"I came with my father. We were in some bus that had a luggage rack in the top of it, and you had to get up at Oh-dark-30 to get on the bus to ride up to Indy for race day," Stewart said.
"They threw me up in the luggage rack. Somebody gave me a pillow and everybody started throwing their jackets on top of me to keep me warm. I was probably 5 years old. We sat in turns three and four, and we were two rows up, right in the middle of the short chute.
"The hard thing was, you could hardly see anything. The cars were so fast. They were a blur. But to see those cars under caution and smell the methanol fumes and everything, it was still pretty cool."
Stewart jumped forward a few decades and relived his emotion-charged run to the checkered flag here last year, spitting out every detail as if it had occurred just yesterday. He specifically recalled his father, Nelson, nervously watching the final laps play out from the balcony of Stewart's trackside suite.
"For the last 50 laps, my dad never left the front rail of that thing. I thought he was going to fall over once, he was leaning so far over," Stewart said. "Our suite is just over the retaining wall, on the first level, and it's right in my sight line. I didn't realize it was him until about halfway through the race. But it was unmistakable who he was when I got the lead."
Stewart said he made a poor run through one of the turns as he closed in on the historic victory at Indy, with Kasey Kahne still dogging him from close enough to make Stewart's dad and everyone else very nervous.
"I had the lead, but I slipped once in [turn] two, and when I came back the next lap, my dad's got his headset off and he's pointing to his head just like he did when I was 8 years old racing go-karts," Stewart said. "He's telling me to use my head, and I'm sitting there thinking, 'Dad, I got here for a reason, because I know what I'm doing. Just let me do my job.'•"
For Stewart and the rest of his clan, winning at Indy was never in the bag until the bright orange Home Depot Chevrolet crossed that blessed row of ancient bricks a final time.
"That's what made it so gratifying and so special," Stewart said "There aren't very many places you can go and see your family every lap when you come around there. I was looking right at him when I went into turn two looking for my mark. It was just a natural sight line anyway.
"When we got that lead, I don't think Dad or anyone else in that suite sat down the rest the race."
Stewart led 44 of the 160 laps in the race, and the pressure-packed duel with Kahne near the end left Stewart nearly vanquished - physically and emotionally.
"I was dying out there," Stewart said of the moments immediately following his win. "I was exhausted in every way, and I had a hard time putting it all into words. My entire racing life had been kind of focused on that one moment."
Stewart said he came to Indy this week with the same mission - to win at the Brickyard - but in a very different state of mind.
"Last year was a very tense and stressful week," Stewart said, "but coming here as the defending champion makes this a very relaxed week. For the first time we've actually been able to come here and actually kind of relax and have fun with it. I'm looking forward to a good weekend."
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