Stewart keeping emotions in check for final Brickyard

INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Stewart had to know that there probably would be plenty of questions this weekend about him running in the Brickyard 400 for the final time and whether he’d be getting sentimental about it.

So rather than give the same clichéd, canned responses all weekend long, Stewart decided to nip that entire angle in the bud.

When the first of such questions came up during his media appearance prior to Friday afternoon’s practice, Stewart got preemptive.

“You guys are going to make a lot more out of this than what I’m going to make out of it this weekend,” he said. “I literally am coming here like it’s, in my mind, just another race and it’s another weekend here at Indy. So I’m not doing all the sentimental crying stuff that you guys are thinking that I’m going to be doing.”

Stewart, though, can take the business-as-usual approach all he wants — it’s not going to stop everyone else from treating this weekend as special.

The Speedway itself has gone out of its way to show its appreciation for Stewart’s career. Earlier this month, it unveiled a new dirt track that it constructed in honor of the Columbus native, and on Friday, IMS president Doug Boles presented Stewart with yet another farewell gift — a framed piece of the fencing that Stewart climbed after winning the Brickyard 400 in 2005 and 2007.

Boles noted that he and the track had done the same for three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves, another noted fence-scaler.

“We were changing the fence out,” he recalled, “and I was driving down the front stretch one day as we were closing in … and I called the facilities team, and I said, ‘Don’t put up any more fence. Have our photo guys go back and figure out where Helio and Tony climbed it. Let’s save some of that fence; we need to give it to them.'”

If Stewart has his way, he’ll be up on the fence again Sunday afternoon. He’s focused on becoming the third three-time Brickyard winner, and everything else that’s going on — friends, family, farewell fanfare — is just white noise.

When asked how well he’s fared in not letting friends and family become a distraction, Stewart said he’s “done a great job because I have no clue how many friends and family are here this weekend.

“It was not my responsibility to get them all here, so I don’t know how many of them are here. I’ll see them after the race is over, but I’m going to work here in a minute, and that’s all I care about doing for three days.”

Taking a cold, emotionless approach is something that Stewart has to do in order to maintain any chance of success come race day. But just because he’s not showing any feelings this weekend doesn’t mean he doesn’t actually have any.

Stewart’s mother, Pam Boas, certainly knows better.

“He’s putting up a front,” she said. “He wouldn’t be human if he didn’t have some sentimental feelings for this being his last race (at Indy). But he’s having to push it back and stay very focused on what he’s doing — because they’re so in the groove right now.”

Indeed, the No. 14 car is coming into Indianapolis on a roll, having placed in the top seven four times in the past five races. Stewart won at Sonoma, California, on June 26 and finished second last weekend in New Hampshire.

For Stewart, who missed the first eight races of the year after sustaining a back injury in January, the hot streak actually started at Pocono, Pennsylvania, the first weekend in June. Though he finished in 34th place there, Stewart had qualified sixth and felt like his team, led by first-year crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, started to click.

“I think it actually started at Pocono, when we got running better at Pocono, and then Michigan was better after that,” Stewart said. “So I think that was kind of the start of it, and the win kind of just continued that momentum.”

He’s carried it back here to his home state, where fans are excited to see how he’ll fare at a track he first visited at the age of 7.

Gordon a welcomed site

Stewart would rather not talk about that. Fortunately for him, he seems to have been spared somewhat by the return of retired five-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon, who is returning this week as a fill-in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A couple of Stewart’s friends had sent him messages complaining about Gordon stealing the spotlight, but Stewart wasn’t nearly as miffed as they were about that.

“I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Jeff Gordon’s doing me the biggest favor anybody could possibly do this weekend for me,'” he said.

Anything that keeps the focus off of Stewart while he gets ready to race is just fine by him. If “Smoke” has to be the focus this weekend, he’s hoping it’s because he’s in the winner’s circle come Sunday evening.

What might have been

During Friday’s media session, Stewart was asked if he had known that Gordon had been floated as a potential replacement driver for the No. 14 car while Stewart was sidelined at the start of the season.

That possibility, Stewart said, was news to him, “but that would have been awesome.

“That would probably have been one of the coolest things to happen this season if that happened. I would have been all for it. I mean, it’s the least he could have done. He broke my back for me; the least he could have done is drive for me.”

Brian Vickers and Ty Dillon wound up serving as the replacement drivers during Stewart’s eight-race absence.

What might still be

Gordon’s short-term comeback has gotten Stewart thinking about possibly doing the same thing next year or beyond. If someone on the Stewart-Haas Racing team is shelved by an injury or suspension in the future, Stewart isn’t ruling out putting himself back behind the wheel.

“It’s something that I’ve thought about since the talk came about Jeff getting back in the car,” he said. “We don’t have a feeder system, we don’t have an Xfinity team. We don’t have anybody that’s in our system to bring up if that is the case. So we’ll talk about it, I’m sure, at some point, but I’m definitely open to this scenario if it were to happen down the road and we needed somebody.”

A new Sprint Cup stop?

Stewart was at his Eldora Speedway in Ohio on Wednesday, conducting an event for the Tony Stewart Foundation and hosting a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race.

On Friday, he was asked whether he would start lobbying for Eldora to host an Xfinity Series or Sprint Cup race at some point.

“I haven’t really lobbied for it, but I’m more than willing to,” he said. “I’m definitely open to it. It may not be this year that I try lobbying for it — I want to focus on what I’m doing with the Cup car the rest of this season — but I was proud of our staff (this week). We had some turnover employee-wise there, and some guys really stepped up big for that event.”

Kyle Larson was the winner of Wednesday’s truck race.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Friday’s practice” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

How Tony Stewart fared during his two practice sessions on Friday afternoon:

First practice session

Laps: 22

Top lap speed: 179.655 mph

Rank: 8th

Second practice session

Laps: 20

Top lap speed: 180.505 mph

Rank: 24th