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Before Tony Stewart was a NASCAR star, he was a dominating force in IndyCar

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Seemingly lost in Sunday’s career-ending Sprint Cup race for Tony Stewart was the fact that before he became a three-time Cup champion, Stewart was an IndyCar champion.

Stewart competed in the then-Indy Racing League for just two full-time seasons – winning the championship in 1997 and finished third in 1998.

Stewart competed in 26 total races in an Indy car, earning three wins, seven podium finishes and eight pole positions. He led nearly one-third (1,515) of the 4,375 laps he completed and had an average start of 4.8 and an average finish of 10.1.

His three career IndyCar wins came at Walt Disney World Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pikes Peak Raceway.

While Stewart enjoyed his Indy career, there was a void that the Indiana native — who grew up 50 miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway — will always lament: never being able to win the race he coveted the most, the Indianapolis 500.

Sure, he won two Brickyard 400s at IMS, but it wasn’t the same as winning the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

His career record at Indianapolis:

* 1996 – started from the pole, finished 24th. Drove for team owner John Menard. Led 44 of 200 laps before engine problems caused his day to end prematurely on Lap 82. Named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.

* 1997 – started in the middle of the front row, finished a career-best fifth. Drove for team owner John Menard. Led 64 of 200 laps.

* 1998 – started fourth, finished a career-worst 33rd. Drove for team owner John Menard. Led just one lap but had a quick exit, leaving after 22 laps due to engine problems.

* 1999 – started 24th, finished ninth for Tri-Star Motorsports. He did not lead any laps in this race.

* 2001 – in his final Indy 500 appearance — and the final IndyCar race of his career — Stewart started seventh and finished sixth for team owner Chip Ganassi. He led 13 of 200 laps.

Indianapolis 500 - Carb Day
Chip Ganassi

That run for Ganassi – which was the second and final time Stewart attempted the double of racing at Indianapolis in the afternoon and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 later that evening – is described in a story from IndyCar.com.

Among the highlights of that story was Ganassi’s recollection of Stewart racing for him that afternoon and finishing sixth, and then going on to finish third that evening at Charlotte, the first driver to ever complete the full 1,100-mile “double.”

Had Ganassi acted a few years sooner to forge ties with Stewart, he may have eventually had Smoke drive in NASCAR for him as well, rather than for Joe Gibbs before Stewart became co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.

“You know you get involved in this business and you meet people along the way and I’m just sorry we didn’t work harder to do more with him as a driver with our team,” Ganassi said of Stewart to IndyCar.com. “… It (was) 2001 and it just seems like it was a couple of years ago.”

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April 5 in Motorsports History: Alex Zanardi’s amazing Long Beach rally

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Alex Zanardi entered the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 5, 1998 as the race’s defending champion and the series’ defending champion.

But the Italian didn’t seem a serious contender for much of the 105-lap event. Zanardi started 11th position and lost a lap early when he was involved in a multicar spin in the hairpin.

Alex Zanardi celebrates after winning the 1998 Grand Prix of Long Beach. Photo: Getty Images

But the race was still young, and despite emerging from the incident in 18th place, Zanardi slowly progressed through the field while battling radio problems that made communication difficult with his team.

With five laps remaining, Zanardi passed Dario Franchitti on the backstretch for second place and then focused in on leader Bryan Herta.

With two laps remaining, Zanardi made his move, making a daring pass on the inside of Herta in the Queen’s Hairpin (which no longer exists as the track layout was changed the following year).

The move was reminiscent of Zanardi’s famous last-lap move on the inside of Laguna Seca’s famed Corkscrew in 1996, which deprived Herta of his first CART victory.

Franchitti passed Herta as well, and Zanardi went on to clinch his first victory of the season.

“On a day when everything went wrong, we came back and won,” Zanardi said following the race. “I can’t explain it. It wasn’t until I saw Bryan ahead of me that I ever thought I had a shot at winning. It was amazing. I have no words to describe it.”

Following Long Beach, Zanadri won six more times in 1998 en route to his second and final CART championship.

Also on this date:

1992: Bobby Rahal led from start to finish to win the Valvoline 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win was the first of four victories for Rahal during his championship season.

2009: Ryan Briscoe won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of three victories for the Aussie in 2009. The race was also the first IndyCar Series on Versus, which was rebranded as NBC Sports Network in 2012.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994