NASCAR: Tony Stewart confident, not sentimental, at Brickyard 400

Tony Stewart will race for a final time as a Sprint Cup driver at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.
Tony Stewart will race for a final time as a Sprint Cup driver at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Sunday’s Brickyard 400. AP

Tony Stewart doesn’t want anybody getting all teary-eyed over his final NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“(The media) are going to make a lot more out of this than what I’m going to,” Stewart said of Sunday’s Brickyard 400. “In my mind … it is just another race and it’s another weekend here at Indy. I’m not doing all the sentimental crying stuff. I’m going racing this weekend.”

That is vintage Stewart, using his own gently (this time) acerbic manner to push away any hint of sentimentality as he goes about his final season as a Cup driver.

But Indianapolis is, in fact, different. It’s Stewart’s home track. He grew up about an hour south in Columbus, Ind. He drove in the Indianapolis 500 five times in his previous incarnation in the IndyCar Series, then won two Brickyard races during an 18-year NASCAR career that’s wrapping up after this season.

“I have no clue how many friends and family will be here this weekend,” Stewart, who will start third on Sunday, said. “It was not my responsibility to get them all here. I will see them after the race is over. I’m going to work here ... and that is all I care about.”

To be fair to Stewart and where he feels his focus needs to be, until the past few weeks there hadn’t been much for him to be emotional about as he began the final lap of his career. He missed the first eight races of the season after fracturing a vertebra in a dune buggy accident in southern California in January. It was his second injury in three years – he broke his leg in a 2013 sprint car race, forcing him out of 15 races.

It’s good he’s happy in his last season and not, ‘Get me out of here.’

Danica Patrick

Stewart, 45, then struggled on the track as he made his return, with just two top-10 finishes in his first seven races back. He complained publicly that racing was no longer fun for him.

Then Sonoma happened.

Stewart broke through on the road-course in California’s wine country, passing Denny Hamlin on the final turn to win for the first time since 2013.

That victory opened the door for Stewart to qualify for the Chase, which he now seems certain of doing as long as he maintains his spot inside the top 30 in the points standings. Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, has followed up his Sonoma victory with a fifth-place finish at Kentucky and a second last week at New Hampshire.

So, not only is Stewart having fun again, he’s regained most of the confidence he lost after breaking his leg three years ago, starting a dark period that also included his involvement in a sprint car accident that claimed the life of another driver on a dirt track in upstate New York.

Tony Stewart has two Brickyard 400 victories and competed five times in the Indianapolis 500.

“It’s been a while, it’s been a long while,” Stewart said of the confidence he’s feeling now. “It’s a good feeling, I can tell you that. Any time you get hurt like we did with our leg injury and everything that happened after that, there is all this speculation of why you are not running good. It’s been nice to get it all put behind us and show everybody that is not what this is all about and that was not the factor.”

How he’s doing in his No. 14 Chevrolet isn’t everything for which Stewart is responsible. As co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s also closely involved in the performances of drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.

“He’s been cool, calm and generally happy,” Patrick said of Stewart. “After the years of struggle he’s had both on and off track, to win and have a shot at championship in his last season is great – especially when he didn’t even start the season on time.

“It has to be a huge relief for him. He’s been a lot faster recently and he deserves it. It’s good he’s happy in his last season and not, ‘Get me out of here.’”

28 Stewart’s place in points standings (needs to remain in top 30 to be Chase eligible)

The limited fanfare for Stewart as he bows out has been by design. It’s markedly different from how Jeff Gordon did it in 2015, when he spoke at a news conference and accepted gifts at each track.

In fact, Stewart said one reason he’s happy Gordon has returned to drive in the Brickyard in relief of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who is out with concussion-like symptoms) is that it’s taken away some attention that might have been directed at him.

“Absolutely accurate,” Stewart said. “I had a couple of friends send me messages and they were furious about it, going, ‘Oh he is stealing your thunder.’ I’m like, are you kidding me? Jeff Gordon is doing me the biggest favor anybody could possibly do this weekend for me.”

Stewart said he might consider driving in relief next season if the opportunity arose. He also said he hadn’t heard that Gordon had been considered to drive for him in the season-opening Daytona 500 while Stewart recovered from his back injury, as Gordon revealed Friday.

“I’m just glad (Gordon) is back,” Stewart said. “I’m sad that Dale Jr. is not here, but if Dale can’t be here, we know why and we respect why he is not here. I couldn’t be happier about the one guy that is here in his place. I’m glad I get to race with him one more time.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer