Who would’ve thought Tony Stewart – also known as the Indiana boy of NASCAR – would spend his final Brickyard 400 start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the shadow of another story.
With Jeff Gordon subbing for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the spotlight has seemed to turn away from Stewart, as he also competes in his final [scheduled] Brickyard 400 on Sunday. However, the slightly less media attention is nothing Smoke is too concerned about.
“I’m more than happy for Jeff to keep taking all you guys and keeping you guys busy,” Stewart joked after qualifying. “It makes my life a lot easier.”
Something else that has Smoke feeling happy is a third-place qualifying effort in his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. The recent surge in performance in 2016, including top 5s in the last two races, has continued into Indy, as Stewart grabs his best qualifying effort at Indy since 2002 when he won the pole.
“I’ll take it,” he said. “I felt like we left the pole out there but I’m sure the guys ahead of us felt the same way. I clipped the apron in [Turn] 4 and was worried about getting tight in the center and got the nose down too far. That really made it tight by getting on the apron like that.”
Blossoming in the hot summer months on the schedule once again, finishing second last week at New Hampshire, where has the speed come from? Stewart believes he is not the one to ask.
“You’ll have to ask Mike [Bugarewicz, crew chief] he’s the one making the magic happen,” he said. “I just know that the cars are driving better. It seems like the communication between us each week is getting easier and easier. It’s hard when you spot these guys eight races in the beginning of the season to get caught up.
“Everyone thinks Sonoma was the game-changer, but it wasn’t. It was Pocono and Michigan. Those two races leading up to Sonoma were probably as big, if not bigger, than what we did at Sonoma.”
With only one top 5 at the 2.5-miler since 2011, Stewart is thankful to have a quick enough car to contend near the front, as he’ll chase his third win at the Brickyard.
“This is the kind of weekend I wanted for my last weekend,” he said. “I’m having a good time with it so far. I think [starting up front] is a big deal here. Always has been. It seems like the more downforce they take off, the easier it is to race around each other.”