Stewart: ‘This place is always going to be home’

INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Stewart didn’t quite get victory lap that he had hoped for, but his last trip around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track was still an unforgettable one.

An up-and-down afternoon ended with Stewart finishing 11th in his final Brickyard 400 on Sunday. But while Kyle Busch was celebrating a dominating victory, a pair of NASCAR Sprint Cup legends were sharing a moment that both will always remember.

Jeff Gordon had retired from the series at the end of last season, but an injury to Dale Earnhardt Jr. put the five-time Brickyard champion behind the wheel one more time. During the final caution of the race, Stewart and Gordon were side by side in 13th and 14th place.

At that point, Stewart came up with an idea.

“I had my spotter go down to his spotter and say, ‘When this thing’s over, we need to take a lap together around here,'” Stewart explained. “The message I got was, ‘Well, let’s see how this last restart works out.'”

It worked out well for Stewart, who was able to move up a couple of spots while Gordon wound up in 13th. After the race — which ended up going 10 extra laps due to a slew of late crashes — the two future Hall of Famers had their moment.

Stewart, who has won three Cup championships and dozens of races, called his final lap at Indy “one of the three coolest moments” in his 18 years as a NASCAR driver.

“We’ve had a lot of great memories in different types of race cars around here for sure,” Stewart said, “but to be able to have that last lap that I ever ran around here be side by side with Jeff Gordon, that’s something that is a memory that will last a lifetime for me.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway has offered plenty of other memories over the years for Stewart, who won the Brickyard in 2005 and 2007 and had three top-10 finishes and a pole in five Indianapolis 500 starts.

On Friday, Stewart played it cool, insisting he was focused on winning the race, but when the race was over he made it clear that he had been soaking up the moment all week.

Returning to the Speedway late Saturday night after racing on the dirt track in Kokomo, Stewart took a drive through the infield — “just because I just wanted to see it the night before my last race,” he conceded.

“It’s just little things like that that mean a lot to me, and this place is always going to be home, no matter what.”

In previous years, 11th place might not have sat so well with Stewart. This time, it was almost as satisfying as a win.

“It was an awesome weekend,” he said. “Everything went the way we wanted it to. We just came up short today.”

Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor at The Republic. He can be reached at roleary@therepublic.com.