Indianapolis — When Tony Stewart dreamed about winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he never contemplated saying goodbye.
He still can’t find the words.
Now, as Stewart prepares for his final Brickyard 400, he’s brushing aside any talk about nostalgic reflections so he can focus instead on making one more trip to victory lane.
“You guys can ask me all about how I’m feeling, thinking, whatever, but you’re wasting my time and your time,” he said. “All I care about is driving that race car right now. It is probably the most focused I’ve been getting ready for a race. I’m not amped up, or anything like that. I’m just really relaxed and focused and feel good going into it.”
But this is not just another race or just another track for Stewart.
Indiana is where he developed his affinity for dirt tracks and A.J. Foyt and where his talent broke through the fierce, sometimes temperamental moments. He knew it was Indianapolis that would define his career.
After being born in Rushville, Indiana, and attending high school in Columbus, Indiana, Stewart got his first big break when former IMS CEO Tony George started his own series for promising American drivers like Stewart, who struggled to find job openings with IndyCar teams.
Stewart quickly emerged as one of the series’ bright, young faces by winning the 1997 series championship. After five seasons and no Indianapolis 500 wins, Stewart left his home state for the higher-profile, better-paying NASCAR circuit that turned him into a megastar.
Over the past 18 seasons, Stewart has made 601 starts, won 49 races and three Cup championships.
But the Brickyard wins in 2005 and 2007 were the ones he cherished most, and picking up No. 50 on his home track would be a fitting end to a 20-year run at the Brickyard.
“It would be all right, I guess,” Stewart joked. “No, it would be cool because this is one of the marquee races. Everybody wants to win here. Definitely, I want to win here myself.”
Stewart insists he will not take any distractions into Sunday’s race even though the signs are all around that this weekend is different.
His parents and stepfather sat in the front row of Friday’s pre-race news conference. At the end, he graciously accepted a gift from speedway president Doug Boles — pieces of the fencing he climbed after each of his Brickyard wins.
His answers sounded like a throwback to his early IndyCar days when he routinely responded to questions about track conditions or just about anything else at Indy with a nonchalant answer about throwing dirt on the track.
“I have no clue how many friends and family will be here this weekend; it was not my responsibility to get them all here,” Stewart said when asked about potential distractions. “I will see them after the race is over, but I’m going to go to work here in a minute, and that is all I care about doing for three days.”
This weekend has started much like Stewart’s season — off script.
The race billed as “Farewell Smoke” has been somewhat overshadowed by Jeff Gordon’s comeback bid in the No. 88 car. While his friends are disappointed that Stewart doesn’t have the stage to himself, Stewart embraces it.
He rallied from a rugged, injury-plagued start with three top-five finishes in the last four races, including his first win of the season at Sonoma, just like he did at Indianapolis. After finishing 24th on the speed chart with a fast lap of 180.505 mph Friday, he came within a whisker of earning his second Brickyard 400 pole. He’ll start third, right behind pole winner Kyle Busch, after going 184.328 in qualifying.
And it seems everyone has embraced the two sentimental favorites this weekend.
“To have Tony Stewart in his final race, Jeff Gordon in his final race, Part 2, it is a big time,” four-time Brickyard winner Jimmie Johnson said. “I can only imagine how loud they are going to be at driver intros.”
Or how crazy the fans would get if the 45-year-old Stewart winds up scaling the fence one more time before focusing on team ownership full-time.
Even now, Stewart can’t quite find the proper description.
“I’m not doing all the sentimental, crying stuff you guys think I’m going to be doing,” he said. “I’m going to race this weekend.”
When: Sunday, 3 p.m.
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (oval, 2.5 miles)
2015 winner: Kyle Busch