Tony Stewart does what he wants, when he wants and he doesn’t care what anybody else thinks about it.
It’s one of the advantages of being his own boss.
It’s also why he returned to his beginnings in the sprint cars last week less than a year after breaking bones in his right leg, which caused him to miss the last 15 races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule in 2013.
The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion returns to a good place — home — this week in NASCAR’s return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The John Wayne Walding 400 marks the 20th NASCAR race at the Brickyard.
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Stewart, who grew up 45 minutes away, was one who didn’t believe NASCAR belonged on the venerable grounds of open wheel.
“I’m a purist,” said Stewart, part owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. “I’m old-school. It’s always been sacred ground to me. I was actually in Illinois the day that the Brickyard ran, and when I got back and saw the replay of the race it was very evident that this was something that wasn’t breaking religion so to speak or sacrilegious for it to be there.
“It really showed why NASCAR belonged there.”
Jeff Gordon, another Indiana boy, won that first race in 1994, holding off Ernie Irvan and Brett Bodine at the end.
Irvan, who started 17th that day, became a serious contender when he caught Rusty Wallace and took the lead at Lap 140. He led for five laps, yielded to Gordon for the next five, then re-took the lead at lap 150.
He seemed to have the race in hand when his Robert Yates-owned No. 28 Ford Thunderbird cut down a right-front tire and began to slow with six laps remaining. Gordon zipped past him and held off Bodine by more than a half-second.
Bill Elliot, Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Sr. followed.
Gordon has won the race four times, though Stewart, too, has had his share of success.
With Joe Gibbs, Stewart won the race twice. In his career, he has seven top fives, 11 top 10s and a pole position. His average finish is eighth.
Stewart is still in search of his first victory in 2014 and is 19th in the points standings, causing speculation that he’s had trouble adjusting to this season’s new rules package.
“It’s nice to have won two races already there,” said Stewart, whose Stewart-Haas teammate/employee Ryan Newman won at Indy a year ago. “That gives you confidence of knowing what you have to do to win. It’s just a matter of doing it.”
Though he didn’t run in the World of Outlaws, Stewart’s return to sprint cars, he said, fortified his belief that his time is coming in Sprint Cup. He won one of two races in sprint cars last weekend.
He was asked this week if he saw any comparisons to his Sprint Cup championship season in 2011, when a World of Outlaws race in Canada seemed to turn around his season.
“I just think it was a confidence-builder,” Stewart said. “People don’t realize … it isn’t going down to a lower division. Just because it’s not NASCAR or it’s not IndyCar or it’s not Formula 1, it’s not going down.
“It’s tougher competition in that series than it is in the Truck series or the Nationwide Series. You’ve got better drivers, better equipment across the board.”
While NASCAR’s top circuit took the week off last week, Stewart went to the Midwest trying to find a way to change his future by returning to his past.
“It was a confidence boost for me,” he said. “We’re all finicky when it comes to running bad and you sit there and start questioning if you’re doing something wrong or if you’re not adapting to the car. Is it something that you’re doing or not doing as a driver?
“To have two good runs like that in a car that I haven’t been in for almost a full year now, that was a huge confidence boost and made me feel like, hey, maybe we’ll just meet and find something else.”
Leader likes Indy: Points leader Jeff Gordon will be seeking his second victory of 2014 at a site where he has flourished. Gordon has won four times at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson also has four. “With the type of season that we’re having, I’m extremely excited about going to Indianapolis,” Gordon said. “I think that the way that our cars are performing, the way our engines are performing, Indianapolis is a track that we certainly can win at.”
Helio, Helio: Helio Castroneves maintained his series lead with finishes of second and 12th at Toronto’s double race weekend.
11 Consecutive years a Chevy has won at the Brickyard. A Chevrolet has won 15 of the 20 previous races.
8 Times the Brickyard champion went on to win NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
“When I got into Victory Lane, I had kind of totally forgot about it. Todd grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, remember what we talked about.’ It wasn’t until then that I remembered that we were going to do something a little different. We hadn’t told any of the crew or anything like that. So we just told them to follow us and went out and had our time on the yard of bricks.”
— Dale Jarrett, 1996 and ’99 Brickyard champion, on how he and crew chief Todd Parrott began the tradition of winning crews kissing the bricks.