The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

Sprint Cup - Stewart Race Preview

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

KANNAPOLIS, May 23, 2012: For Indiana native Tony Stewart, one event on Memorial Day weekend used to trump all others – the Indianapolis 500. But after more than 30 years of racing competitively – 14 of which have been spent in the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – the Greatest Spectacle in Racing has, believe it or not, taken a backseat to the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.

Memorial Day weekend provides a motorsports mosaic, from stock cars in Charlotte to Formula 1 in Monaco to the cornerstone of the weekend – the Indianapolis 500. Stewart pays attention to all of it, and for the better part of his career, Indy reigned supreme. And why not?

The recently turned 41-year-old grew up 45 minutes from the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road in Columbus. His first in-person look at the Indy 500 came when he was five, but by his eighth birthday, Stewart was no longer content to be a spectator.

His first go-kart race came in 1978 in Westport, Ind. His first go-kart win came in 1979 in Westport. And the first of his three go-kart championships came in 1980 at the Columbus Fairgrounds. They were all a prelude of things to come, as Stewart would go on to win four USAC championships, an IZOD IndyCar Series title, three Sprint Cup Series championships and the final International Race of Champions (IROC) crown.

Along that path, particularly when Stewart became a champion in USAC in 1994, won the USAC “Triple Crown” in 1995 and then advanced to Indy cars in 1996, the Hoosier seemed destined to become a mainstay at Indy. And he would, but in stock cars.

Like many other promising open-wheelers, Stewart made his racing home in NASCAR. He ran a five-race NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule in 1997 while simultaneously capturing the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. Twenty-two Nationwide Series races followed in 1998 in preparation for his rookie year in Sprint Cup in 1999.

With the exception of two “Double Duty” stints in 1999 and 2001 where Stewart competed in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same weekend, Stewart hasn’t looked back.

Long gone are the G-Forces and Dallaras. It’s a Chevy now and for Stewart’s immediate future. That’s because the owner of five Indianapolis 500 starts – with a best finish of fifth in 1997 – is now a NASCAR lifer. He’s the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, the Sprint Cup team he co-owns with Gene Haas, founder of Haas Automation – the largest machine tool manufacturer in the western world. And he’s running for a fourth Sprint Cup championship, among the top-10 in points after just 11 of 36 rounds of racing.

Another foray to Indy while performing his regular job in NASCAR as the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy would take Stewart’s eyes off the prize, and with more than 160 employees toiling at his shop in Kannapolis, it’s a compromise he’s unwilling to make.

As such, Stewart’s mindset is like the old Coca-Cola slogan from 1982: “Coke Is It.” He’ll watch the Indianapolis 500 as an interested television viewer, but will participate in the Coca-Cola 600 as a tenacious competitor. And at the end of the 600-miler, which will wrap close to midnight, Stewart is intent on having “A Coke and a Smile” from Charlotte’s victory lane.