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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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Here are the starting times for 2020 NTT IndyCar Series action on NBC and NBCSN

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Another important tidbit for NTT IndyCar Series fans is out as INDYCAR and NBC announced starting times for the 2020 season. The full television schedule is also included.

There are different starting times at four races in 2020 from 2019. Those include the March 15 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge at Circuit of the Americas on April 26, a later starting time for the Saturday night race at Iowa Speedway on July 18 on NBCSN

INDYCAR released the green flag times today for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season that features starting time shifts at four races – St. Petersburg, Circuit of The Americas, Iowa and Mid-Ohio – and the anticipated evening return to Richmond Raceway.

Those four returning races represent the only significant green flag start time changes from a year ago in the 17-race 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule, beginning with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg scheduled for Sunday, March 15.

The August 16 Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio will be moved to an earlier starting time and will be broadcast on NBC. Previously, the race was scheduled for 4:05 p.m., but has been changed to a 12:45 p.m. Eastern Time green flag.

INDYCAR’s return to Richmond Raceway on Saturday, June 27 will begin at 8:15 p.m. ET. That is the only new event on the schedule.

Detailed broadcast information for the entire season will be announced at a later date.

Here are the notable changes to the starting times on the schedule:

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which began at 1:40 p.m. ET this past season, will now have a 3:30 p.m. green flag. The race on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., will be celebrating its 10thanniversary as the series’ season opener and be televised on NBC Sports Network.

The AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge at Circuit of The Americas on Sunday, April 26, will have a similar shift, moving from a 1:43 p.m. ET green flag this past season to 4:10 p.m. (3:10 p.m. local) in 2020. The permanent road course in Austin, Texas, will play host to the fourth race of the season and be broadcast on NBCSN.

The Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway, set for Saturday, July 18, on NBCSN, will be better accommodated for an evening race under the lights with the green flag moving from 7:15 p.m. ET to 9 p.m. (8 p.m. local).

“The return of a night race for INDYCAR at Iowa Speedway is exciting news for our race fans, sponsors, and the entire region,” Iowa Speedway President David Hyatt said. “The cars look great under the lights, and the competition should be even more fierce given what should be cooler conditions. Our track provides some of the best racing you’ll see anywhere, which will be good for attendance. This will be a can’t-miss weekend for all race fans.”

The return to a true night race at Iowa was the result of fans requesting it. The race will begin at 8:00 p.m. CT on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. And for fans and drivers, it is nostalgic, hearkening back to the first race many of them experienced … a night race on a short track.

The series hasn’t held a race that began after dusk at Iowa Speedway since 2015, and drivers and fans are welcoming it. Not only does it look more vibrant — and create sparks as cars bottom out — it also makes for better racing. Tires grip better when the track is cooler. Fans also avoid sweltering conditions during summer afternoons.

The Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Sunday, Aug. 16, will be the only race among the four that moves to an earlier start time. The race, which had a 4:05 p.m. ET start this past season, will shift to a 12:45 p.m. green flag in 2020 and be televised on NBC.

The NTT IndyCar Series heads to Richmond Raceway – the only new addition on the 2020 schedule – for the 11th race of the season on Saturday, June 27. The field will take the green flag at 8:15 ET for the start of the first Indy car race at the .75-mile oval since 2009. The race will be broadcast on NBCSN.