Versatile Champion Stewart is a Threat to Win in Many Cars
2 June 1998
Stewart, the defending Pep Boys Indy Racing League champion, returns to his Indy-style car this week for the True Value 500, scheduled for Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. The race is a chance for Stewart to recover from a blown engine and bitterly disappointing last-place finish May 24 in the Indianapolis 500, where he was one of the favorites to win.
Stewart, from Rushville, Ind., had just taken the lead in that race when the engine quit. He applied salve to some of his hurt feelings May 30 by driving to third place at Dover, Del., in his NASCAR Busch Grand National car, then hurriedly flew back to Indiana in time to drive his late model stock car to victory on the dirt at Brownstown, Ind.
So far this year, Stewart also has driven USAC Silver Crown and midget cars and a supermodified. He owns a three-quarter midget driven by Mark Hill on the UMRA circuit. Hardly a day goes by where Stewart isn't at a racetrack driving something.
Amazingly, Stewart runs at the front no matter what type of racing machine he drives. For instance, at Indy he led the lap before the engine expired in his Glidden-Menards Special Dallara/Aurora/Firestone. He is the only driver in open-wheel racing to have won championships in Indy-style cars, and USAC Silver Crown, sprints and midgets.
Last season he won one Pep Boys IRL race (at Pikes Peak), one Silver Crown race and five midget races. Considering he led 812 laps in the IRL, including 100 from the pole at Texas Motor Speedway, Stewart led the pack for more than 1,000 laps in all of his racing starts. In his short NASCAR Busch Grand National career driving for Joe Gibbs, he already has two second places and last Saturday's third to his credit.
As a versatile driver, Stewart comes from the same mold that produced A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Jeff Gordon. But Gordon has never driven an Indy-style car.
Stewart, who turned 27 on May 20, says there is no great secret about driving all types of racecars fast.
"I guess I just do it," he said. "It's not something I think about."
Stewart notes that the most noticeable difference between Pep Boys IRL cars and stock cars is the weight. A stock car is nearly a ton heavier than the 1,620 pounds of the speedy, open-wheel Pep Boys IRL machines.
"It's like stacking two IRL cars together and making them go," he said. "You get accustomed to it."
One thing that both cars share is an engine that is pushed to the limit on every lap. Despite the impressive reliability of NASCAR and IRL engines, sometimes problems occur. That's what happened at Indy and then four days later at Dover.
Stewart's initial engine blew at Dover before he even got one hot lap in practice.
"I didn't even get up to speed," he said. "I just was going out warming up and taking it easy and lost it."
There was time to change motors at Dover. At Indy, there was time only for frustration and a salute to the fans, which cheered for Stewart after he climbed out of his disabled machine.
"You never ever get over it," he said about being eliminated so early. "The (fans) tried to make me feel better. I acknowledged them. They are what helped me get through that."
Stewart's schedule is so hectic that he has two assistants working regularly in Indianapolis preparing his itinerary, handling fan mail and performing other tasks. His concentration is such that this week's Texas race is solely on his mind.
The new track configuration, racing at night and the heat -- all a part of Saturday's race -- don't concern him.
"I didn't have any problems last year," he said of racing at Texas Motor Speedway. "It's a lot like Atlanta."
About racing at night, he adds, "It doesn't matter to me ^ night or day."
Stewart particularly relishes the heat. He said that cars don't handle as well when the mercury climbs at the track, making the driver work harder. And that's when the driver's true talent comes to the forefront.
"Just like any other series, what happened at Indy is gone," he said. "I'm concentrating on winning Texas this week."
Stewart lost an engine near the end of last year's race at Texas, hit the wall between Turns 1 and 2 and placed fifth.
Stewart, who won the Orlando race in January, holds a six-point lead, 96-90, over Jeff Ward in the Pep Boys IRL standings after Indy. Stewart collected only one point at the "500."
After this race, Stewart will hop back into his Busch car before the Pep Boys IRL race June 28 at New Hampshire.
TRUE VALUE 500 NOTEBOOK
Texas Two-Step: The True Value 500 will be the first race of the "Texas Two-Step" Championship, a unique bonus program providing extra incentive for strong performances by drivers in both Pep Boys IRL races this year at Texas Motor Speedway.
The Pep Boys IRL driver who scores the most combined points in the True Value 500 on June 6 and the Lone Star 500 on Sept. 20 will earn a $100,000 bonus as the Texas Two-Step champion. The driver with the second-highest total will earn $50,000.
Event schedule: The second annual True Value 500 is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. (CDT) June 6. Qualifying starts at 8:15 p.m. June 4.
Pep Boys IRL practice sessions will take place at 2 and 5 p.m. June 4, and 2:30 and 6 p.m. June 5.
Broadcast schedule: The True Value 500 will be televised live on TNN at 9 p.m. (EDT) June 6. Pole qualifying will be televised live on SpeedVision at 9:15 p.m. (EDT) June 4. The IMS Radio Network will broadcast the race live at 9 p.m. (EDT) June 6, with a pre-race show starting at 8:30 p.m.