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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