Two weeks ago, the NASCAR world knew that Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway would probably be the last for Indiana’s native son Tony Stewart. But only days from the race the news broke that another NASCAR legend and a fan favorite who grew up in Indiana would be also making one last Brickyard appearance.
Jeff Gordon was called out of retirement to sub for the ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. and suddenly the focus was on not one, but two drivers. The accolades for the retiring Stewart, who missed the first eight race of the season, began in the driver’s meeting Sunday.
Gordon took to the podium to pay tribute to Stewart, and his soon to be fellow retiree.
“I think it’s only fitting,” Gordon said. “And Tony, I know that you don’t want to be recognized — you’ve been doing an amazing job this year and I know you want to kind of keep it on the lowdown, but I’m sorry buddy. We’re in your home state. Born and raised in Indiana.”
“I know as we got to know one another as friends and competitors over the years what this place means to you,” Gordon added. “And I think that this is not a year about saying goodbye, it’s a year about celebrating what you’ve done on the track and off the track. And I think it’s only fitting that all of us in this room — along with all the millions of fans around the world — recognize what you’ve brought to the sport, congratulate you on all you’ve done, again on and off the track. You’re a great person but a heck of a race car driver, and say thank-you.”
The crowd gave Stewart a standing ovation. Stewart also received a thunderous roar from the crowd when he was introduced. The Speedway and NASCAR paid tribute to Stewart by allowing him to lead the field on the first pace lap.
However, Stewart also had a good chance to win his third Brickyard 400 in his final try. He started the race third and was running near the front for most of the race but during the race’s third caution on lap 121 disaster struck. Stewart was penalized for speeding and was forced to restart 23rd, one lap down.
Stewart would get his lap back, but couldn’t recover in time to make it back in contention for the win. Stewart settled for an 11th place finish.
“I really did the team wrong here,” Stewart said. “I got a penalty on the last stop and that is a green flag stop that turned into a yellow and got us a lap down. But we fought and got our lap back and I don’t know where did we end up 11th? So, fought back and got something respectable out of this. Didn’t leave anything out there.”
Gordon had an eventful day of his own. After starting 21st, Gordon struggled to move forward. He was able to finally break into the top 20 late in the race but ran out of time and finishing 13th.
“Wow. The challenges to be out there against the best, especially on those restarts,” Gordon said smiling. “I got my butt kicked on those restarts. It was embarrassing. While I will fill-in for Dale Jr., and I hope he’s doing good, I needed a fill-in on restarts. It was pretty bad.”
“ Other than that, I thought it went really well,” he added. “I really liked working with Greg (Ives, crew chief) and this whole No. 88 team. It took us a little while to get the balance right and the adjustments came to us, he made an awesome pit call to come in early one time. And he called it right as I was going into Turn 4 and that made up a lot of spots for us because we had a fast race car. We just couldn’t get the track position. It was pretty tough to pass.”
The two drivers provided even more emotional moments after the race. In the closing laps, the two drivers’ spotters communicated and came up with a plan. After the checkered flag, while winner Kyle Busch was doing a celebratory burnouts on the frontstretch, Gordon and Stewart toured the track in their cars one final time to salute the fans. The two then embraced on pit road after climbing out of their cars.
“It was cool,” Stewart said. “I knew when we got the checkered we just didn’t want to come in just yet. I wanted to run one more lap and Jeff was around us and before that last green run I told my spotter to go get his spotter and said after this thing is over, we need to go a lap around here together because most likely is the last time we’ll both get a chance to do that. I couldn’t think of a better guy to share that moment with than Jeff.”
“I can say that just ranks in the top three coolest moments of my 18 years in this series,” he added. “To share that moment with Jeff here at Indianapolis I don’t know. I don’t even have the words for it. That is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
“Tony and I have gone through a lot over the years,” Gordon said.”But, he and I have become really good friends. I was with him when he got hurt this year. And to see what he’s done and how tough he is as a competitor; I’ve always know what a great guy and what a great race car driver he is, and now I know more about who Tony Stewart really is. I’m just so proud that I was able to be here and race with him in his final race.”
“Maybe, I don’t know!” he added laughing. “I thought last year was going to be my final race. You never know with Tony Stewart. But it meant a lot to me to be able to stand in front at the driver’s meeting and recognize him and then do that pace lap here at the end.”