NEW WESTON, Ohio — Tony Stewart giggles like a schoolkid having fun as he plays with his adult toys. Owning a racetrack and surrounding property in addition to having a manufacturer who wants to give him vehicles to play with, as he says, has its privileges.
A year ago at this time, Stewart prepared for his final Brickyard 400, at the racetrack the three-time NASCAR Cup champion and one-time Indy Racing League champion believes to be the most hallowed ground in racing.
If anything exists that would make Stewart miss NASCAR, one would think racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway would rank near the top. Yet two days before the NASCAR Cup garage was set to open at IMS, the retired-from-NASCAR Stewart seemed perfectly content taking a Ford Raptor through a makeshift course in a quarry area adjacent to his Eldora Speedway. Sawing the wheel of the vehicle as he later took to the turns on his half-mile dirt track, Stewart couldn’t get enough of it.
The 46-year-old swears he has no desire to race at IMS again. Last year, when the race ended with him and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon doing a ceremonial postrace cool-down lap together, will serve as a good enough memory.
“When I made the decision that I was done, my mind had already moved on, and my mind hasn’t remotely changed with going to the track and stuff,” Stewart said Thursday at Eldora. “I’m excited to go this weekend — I’m excited to go in the capacity [as an owner] I’m going in.
“There’s nothing about it that makes me go, ‘Man, I wish I was in the car this weekend.'”
Stewart certainly has enough to keep him busy with Eldora, his sprint car series, breeding white-tailed deer on his farm, helping operate his NASCAR Cup teams and still racing himself. He plans to compete twice this weekend in Pennsylvania (Erie and outside of Pittsburgh), where his All-Star Circuit of Champions is touring. He won’t have the pressure there that he had at Indy, where he won the Brickyard in 2005 and 2007.
“Indy was one of the worst for me — it was one of the hardest weeks of the year because you put so much pressure on yourself to want to win at home,” Stewart said. “Especially before we won it the first time, it was almost unbearable to be there as a driver.”
Not allowed by sponsors to race a sprint car for his final two-plus years of NASCAR Cup racing after suffering an injury and then being involved in the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, Stewart now gets his racing fix in the open-wheel winged cars with great horsepower. Eventually, he will start racing with a new Ford engine, making sure it has enough power before putting it in Tony Stewart Racing cars that are in contention to win the season title.
He relishes that opportunity, just like he relishes having the feel of his hands on a steering wheel of what everyone knows is his first love when it comes to race cars.
“We’re not as good as we’d like to be in it right now,” he said about his sprint car performance this year. “But I’m very, very happy to be back in one.”
Stewart doesn’t attend all the NASCAR race weekends, but he’s at plenty of them. He will fly to Indy after racing Friday night to watch Cup practice Saturday, then return to Pennsylvania to race Saturday night and then back to Indianapolis. He seeks his second Brickyard win as a Cup owner.
Two of his Cup drivers — Kevin Harvick (fourth in the standings) and Kurt Busch (14th) have 2017 wins, with Busch capturing the Daytona 500. Clint Bowyer has enjoyed a career resurrection and sits 10th in the standings, and Danica Patrick sits 28th with seven races where she did not finish.
“There’s some areas that I’m really excited about the strength of, and there are some areas I feel like we’re struggling as a group,” Stewart said about his organization’s performance amid the switch to Ford. “There’s probably only one or two [teams in the garage] that really feel like they’re really good week in, week out right now.
“Everybody else is sitting there kind of scratching their heads because they’ll go good one week and be a little off the next week.”
Uncertainty about performance on the track isn’t the only thing that keeps Stewart and the SHR brass busy. Two drivers — Busch and Patrick — aren’t set for next season as the organization looks for sponsorship.
Does he have a timetable, a goal for that lineup to be set?
“Whenever we get it done,” Stewart said. “That’s the hard thing with sponsors and everything else. It’s a really, really hard market to sell.”
Busch is in an option year, with Stewart-Haas Racing waiting for Monster to decide whether it will continue to back him for half the season.
“We’re still working with them on it,” Stewart said. “They’ve been a great partner. To the best of my knowledge, they’re still happy doing what we’re doing to this point. They seem excited about it still.”
Patrick, who doesn’t have a majority sponsor for 2018, appears to be at a crossroads. She originally had a three-year sponsorship deal with Nature’s Bakery, but with that falling apart after one season, whether SHR and she will be together in 2018 remains uncertain.
Stewart delivered a passionate defense of Patrick, saying that she is the most scrutinized driver he knows and that she still has the passion to improve her performance.
“She’s gaining on it,” Stewart said. “I think she’s closing the gap getting caught up to the other three. It’s not for a lack of effort. … Why keep doing it? Look at the guys she’s still outrunning. What do you think those guys are thinking? That’s the thing that kind of pisses me off about how everybody thinks about her.
“If she runs 20th consistently every week, they’re like, ‘Why is she even bothering?’ Well, she’s still outrunning 20 other guys.”
The response: because those other 20 guys aren’t in SHR equipment.
“You could put Landon Cassill in our equipment and he might do exactly the same thing,” Stewart said. “Look at [Hendrick’s] Kasey Kahne — it’s not like he’s not a good driver, but he’s struggling, too [at 22nd in points].
“Nobody is going, ‘Why is he even bothering?’ … I wouldn’t want to be her. I wouldn’t want to put up with it.”
There is at least one big free agent out there, with 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth looking.
“I think somebody will grab him pretty quick,” said Stewart, indicating that it will come down to who has an open spot. “Anybody that is smart will grab him really quick.”
Although it would appear that SHR couldn’t afford to support three partially sponsored drivers next year, Stewart said the intent is to have four cars. Ford Racing’s Dave Pericak also indicated that the plan is for SHR to have four teams. Pericak is credited with luring SHR from Chevy to Ford.
“Sponsorship has been very difficult in the sport,” Pericak said. “Everybody is working hard to try to keep that going — I’d love to see them stay at the four-car level, for sure.”
SHR did its deal with Ford based on having four teams.
“Sponsorship-wise, it’s hard to sell enough sponsorship for four teams,” Stewart said. “It’s a lot of work for anybody. … We don’t have any intention to not be [four cars], but at the same time, we’ve got to run a business, too.”
One thing is for certain — Stewart won’t be driving them. If he doesn’t even want to race at Indianapolis, it pretty much means his stock car racing days are done.
“There’s a lot of things I don’t miss, and it doesn’t matter where we go, those are the things I don’t miss,” Stewart said. “I’m very content.”