KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS, is a 16-year veteran of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but his racing roots aren’t in stock cars, they’re in open-wheel machines, the pinnacle of which is the Indianapolis 500.
Stewart made a name for himself in the rough-and-tumble world of the United States Auto Club (USAC), home to numerous open-wheel divisions that has served as a ladder system to the Indianapolis 500 for decades. Stewart has four USAC championships, including what at the time was an unprecedented win of USAC’s “Triple Crown.”
USAC’s top-three national touring divisions are Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown. After winning the Midget title in 1994 and finishing 10th and sixth in the Sprint and Silver Crown divisions, respectively, Stewart went out and set a new standard of excellence in 1995 by winning all three divisions. No driver had ever won the Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown championships – divisions that run three very different types of racecars which compete on both asphalt and dirt – in a single season until Stewart.
That success led Stewart to earn a ride in the IndyCar Series in 1996. He made the most of it by winning the series championship in 1997, sowing the seeds of Stewart’s current NASCAR success, which includes three Sprint Cup championships and 48 career wins.
But before Stewart left the open cockpits of Indy cars for the tin tops of stock cars, the Indianapolis 500 was his must-have race. Even after making three Indy 500 starts with a best finish of fifth in 1997, the pull of Indy beckoned Stewart so strongly that he continued to race in the Indianapolis 500 as a Sprint Cup rookie in 1999. That meant competing in two of the longest and most prestigious races in a single day, for after racing 500 miles around Indy’s 2.5-mile oval, Stewart would jet to Charlotte, North Carolina, to race in the Coca-Cola 600, a 400-lap marathon around the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The grueling, one-day trek known as “Double Duty” saw Stewart become the first driver to complete both races in the same day, finishing ninth and fourth, respectively, and racing a total of 1,090 miles. Stewart repeated this feat in 2001, when he drove for Chip Ganassi at Indy and Joe Gibbs at Charlotte. Stewart bettered his mark from 1999 by finishing on the lead lap in sixth before jetting off to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600. He improved that finish as well, coming home third in the 600-miler. Stewart completed all 1,100 miles – breaking his record for most racing miles driven in one day.
Few have attempted the Double. John Andretti was the first to do it 1994, finishing 10th at Indy and 36th at Charlotte. Robby Gordon has made five attempts at the Double, with his best run coming in 2002 when he finished eighth at Indy and 16th at Charlotte. Neither driver completed all the laps, with Gordon falling just one lap short of completing all 1,100 miles in 2002. Gordon’s last attempt at the Double came in 2004, and it took 10 years for another driver to take a stab at running both races in a single day.
That driver is Kurt Busch, Stewart’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, the Sprint Cup Series team Stewart co-owns with Gene Haas, founder of Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world.
Busch has already qualified for this year’s Indy 500. He’ll start 12th in the 98th running of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. On Thursday night, he’ll qualify his No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for the Coca-Cola 600.
Stewart is more than just an interested spectator in his teammate’s Sunday drive. He has a vested interest in Busch’s success, particularly in the Coca-Cola 600, the Sprint Cup Series’ longest race. But Stewart the fan – and former Indy car driver – has a keen interest in Busch’s Indy 500 effort being that he’s a two-time Double Duty participant.
Stewart will watch the Indy 500 on TV from beginning to end before joining Busch at 6 p.m. EDT in the Coca-Cola 600. Stewart will appreciate all that Busch will have done to make it to Charlotte before switching gears and viewing Busch as one of the 42 other drivers he and his Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy must beat to earn his first Coca-Cola 600 victory.
A win on Sunday night would be Stewart’s second at Charlotte, as the recently-turned 43-year-old scored his first Charlotte victory in October 2003 in the track’s 500-mile Sprint Cup race. This year’s Coca-Cola 600 will mark Stewart’s 30th Sprint Cup start at Charlotte, where in his 29 previous starts he has led 701 laps while scoring six top-fives and 13 top-10s.
After keeping his eyes on Indy, Stewart will set his sights on Charlotte, where instead of milk, Coke is it.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ve won just about every race in Sprint Cup. How important would it be to add a Coca-Cola 600 win to your resume?
“Any time you win a race at Charlotte, it’s big. It’s a speedway with a lot of history and, obviously, the Coke 600 is a huge event. I’m a big fan of shorter races nowadays, but the 600 is truly a special event, with it being on Memorial Day weekend and the history of the Coke 600, when it was known as the World 600. There’s just a lot of tradition that surrounds the month of May in Charlotte. So, this is a big race. It’s an important race to win.”
Even though the two races take place on the same racetrack, how different is the All-Star Race from the Coca-Cola 600?
“We go from the shortest race of the year to the longest race of the year. The main difference, besides the distance, is that the Coke 600 starts in the daytime and ends at night, whereas the All-Star Race starts and finishes at night. We’ll take our Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet and go from a sprint race to an endurance race.”
You’ve had a handful of races in your career you feel like you should’ve won, but is the 2008 Coca-Cola 600 one that sticks out most?
“Yeah, that’s definitely the one that sticks out the most in my mind. I mean, we had a five-second lead with three laps to go. We lost the right-front tire, but it wasn’t because of a mistake by Goodyear. It was the fact that we had run 100 laps on the right-side tires, so it just physically melted the bead on the right-front. So it wasn’t any fault of Goodyear’s. It was just circumstances.”
You’re still the only driver who has a top-10 in the Indy 500 and a top-10 in the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
“We’re still the only guy who’s completed all 1,100 miles of Double Duty, which is something I’m really proud of. I think the best two finishes we had was sixth in the 500 and third in the 600. It makes for a very, very long day. When you’re done with the 600, after running Indy and the flight and helicopter rides and police escorts and all that during the day, you’re very, very content to lay your head on a pillow. And even when you do that, it still feels like it’s not stopped moving, yet.”
In your first Double in 1999, you said you felt like you were hallucinating during the last 100 miles of the Coca-Cola 600. Is that true?
“The first year we were so worried about dehydration that I drank and I drank and I drank and I drank. I just never ate enough solid, nutritious food the night before. And the day of the race, I wasn’t hungry because I was drinking so much to try to ensure that I was being hydrated. I got my body so out of whack that, by the time the 600 was done in Charlotte, I’d had enough. I was hungry 50 laps into the race. It’s a 400-lap race in the 600, so 50 laps into it, it was still daylight. It was early in the race and there wasn’t a drive-thru in sight. It made for a long day. We actually tried to get one of Bobby Labonte’s PowerBars – try to get something in me to tide me over until the race was over. It didn’t work. I got two bites of it and two bites did not make it the next 350 laps around Charlotte. It was a good learning experience. I think we finished ninth and fourth that year in the two races. It was a good learning year. We got our feet wet and raised a lot of money for charity that first year. Then we did it two years later with Ganassi at Indy and Gibbs in Charlotte. We had a nutritionist who was with us the entire month of May, so I was in a lot better shape. The first year, my girlfriend drove me home and I was sick the whole ride. The second time around, I drove her home and she slept. So, I was in a lot better shape the second time.”
You became the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles of the Double in 2001. What stood out about your second Double attempt?
“The one part of it that was pretty traumatic was the point where we actually were in the lead of the race at Indy and the rain delay came and then I got a cramp in my leg at the same time during the red flag. The hard part was knowing that we had a hard time to leave that was non-negotiable. It didn’t matter if I was leading by five laps, at a set time we had to leave, whether I was leading the Indy 500 or not. Then we had a rain delay. I was just glad I didn’t have to sit there and make a tough decision. I mean, I know we had a hard time to leave. I know we had an agreement on what the hard time was going to be, but I don’t know if it came to it… I don’t know if I could’ve made myself leave being the leader of the Indy 500 if it came down to it.”
How do you think the Double will be different for Busch than it was for you?
“It’s going to be different because he’s never raced an Indy car. He’s with a great team, though, and he’s with great people. Michael Andretti is definitely a great choice to be with. Michael, being a driver and having run the 500, his experiences there are going to help Kurt during the month because Michael can spend a lot of time with him and walk him through what he has to focus on. He’s a great owner and he was a great driver. So, that’s going to be a big asset for Kurt to have Michael there and Michael being able to coach him along and keep him abreast of what he needs to look for each time he’s on the racetrack.”
What kind of insight can you offer Busch from your own experiences?
“He’s already halfway there because he understands the nutrition side of it right off the bat. That was something I had no clue about. I didn’t know anything about it. I was so worried about being dehydrated that all I did was just drink and drink and drink. I didn’t understand that I had to put the right foods with it to maintain that energy all day. Kurt understands that side of it. The hard part will be not knowing what the start of the race at Indy is like going into turn one. Not knowing how much and how slippery the track is going to get in the race. And how you think your car feels really good on Carb Day, but then you have to have more downforce in it than that for it to stay stable during the race. All the adjustments they can do in the car – he’s going to be using that stuff a lot more in the race than he will at any time in practice. You know, changing gears once you’re out there – I mean with a Sprint Cup car you don’t change gears at all, and he’s going to have three race gears to choose from while he’s running. It’s a big deal. There are a lot of things that are different than what we do as drivers in our respective series that are going to be a challenge for him. It’s hard to learn a lot of those things in practice. It’s the race where you learn what the race is really like, and it’s hard to understand in practice.”
Do you have any advice for Busch?
“He’s not going to have a problem doing both of these races. Physically, it’s not going to be a big deal. He’s a strong enough driver. He’s a mentally disciplined enough driver to focus for both of those races and not have a problem. The nutrition side he’ll be fine on. So physically, he’s going to be in great shape for it. The hardest part is going to be the first half of it. There’s no doubt when he gets to Charlotte he 100 percent is going to be fine. The element that’s going to be new to him and the one that he’s adjusting to the whole month is the first one of the two. Those experiences that happen during race day – you can talk to somebody and you can tell him how bad it’s going to be at the start of the race. I guarantee it’s going to feel worse to him than what we can even can describe to him. It’s little things like that. When you’re a fan and you watch the 500 and watch the start on TV, you have no idea how turbulent the air is, you have no idea how bad the fumes are. Your eyes are watering because of the fumes. It’s tough and demanding. It’s not just about who has the fastest car. You have to plan way ahead with everything that you do in the car. A pass sometimes starts three-quarters of a lap earlier than when you actually make the move. Those are things that are different than what you would see in a Sprint Cup car. You can tell him, but until he gets in that situation and experiences it firsthand, he’s not going to understand until he gets in that moment.”
- Krista K. Massey
Former Group Vice President, Director of Sponsorships and Event Marketing
SunTrust Banks, Inc.