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Tony Stewart remains open to Indy 500 return

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DEARBORN, Mich. – Tony Stewart has an itch to race more often, and the three-time NASCAR champion naturally wants to scratch it at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019.

Stewart, an Indiana native who grew up dreaming of winning at the Brickyard, hasn’t raced the Indianapolis 500 since 2001 but said Tuesday “it’s not out of the question” that he will return to Indy as soon as next May.

Stewart, who had downplayed the idea of racing the Indy 500 in recent years, said he would want to run at least one IndyCar race before returning.

“If I go, I’m not going just to run it,” said Stewart, who hasn’t had any serious discussion with teams yet. “I don’t want to be a sideshow like Danica (Patrick) was at Indy this year. If I go I want to go feeling like I’ve got the same opportunity to win that everyone else in the field does.

“It’s an insult to the guys who do it every week to show up and think you’re going to be as good as those guys are. They’re on their game. They know their cars. They know how they need their cars to feel in practice to be good in the race. It’s foolish to think you can just show up and be competitive and have a shot to win.”

Patrick qualified seventh and finished 30th in the 2018 Indy 500, the final start of her career.

Stewart has five starts in the Indianapolis 500, starting on pole as a rookie in 1996 and leading 64 laps in a career-best fifth in 1997.

He believes he could be in winning form with the right team and a little time to knock off the rust.

“One race might not be enough to feel like you’re where you need to be,” he said. “But at least little things like pit stops and having that much duration of time in the seat to make sure no points or parts of the seat are pinching — things when you’re only in it for 10 minutes you don’t notice, but two hours you notice it. Those are things to sort out once you get there.”

Asked if it was important to run well because his return would make him the focus, Stewart said, “I don’t give two (craps) about the focus.

“I care about running well in the car. I don’t want to be the circus sideshow. If I do it, that’s not why I’m doing it. If I do it, I’m doing it because I want to win the race.”

The co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, who retired from the Cup Series in 2016 after 17 seasons, caused a stir in the preseason when he said he wanted to run a road course in the Xfinity Series.

Stewart said he looked at it, but he would have had to trade off four sprint car races.

“(It) was a lot to give up,” he said. “I still plan on doing it somewhere down the road if the opportunity is right. If that opportunity does come around and I don’t have four sprint car races on the schedule, I’d definitely like to do it again.”

After a disappointing 2017 in which he struggled in returning to run 45 sprint car races, Stewart has run 62 races so far this year.

“I feel every night I’m in a car, we’re better,” said Stewart, who turned 47 in May. “Our performance is better. We’ve already ran 62 races this year. We’re much better than we were last year.

“The more I race, the better I get. Even on days we’re off, I’m learning things that will help down the road. It’s just getting back in that rhythm again and finally starting to get confidence back as a driver, and feel like I’m ready to start doing some stuff.”

After a deal fell apart to put him in a Ford seat for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Stewart said the world’s most famous endurance race also remains on his radar.

“Everything’s a possibility,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve written off and said, ‘You know what, I’m never doing it.’ Everything is an opportunity still. I’m getting anxious to do stuff again.”

With possibly one exception – Formula 1.

Even though NASCAR partner Gene Haas has a team, Stewart said it literally wouldn’t be a good fit.

“That’s going to be a tough one,” he said. “(F1 drivers are) skinny. I don’t mind working hard to be a race car driver, but I don’t want to have to work that hard just to be skinny. I like to eat still.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will race IndyCar stars in iRacing at Michigan

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The invite has been received, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has another iRacing event on his schedule.

The NASCAR on NBC analyst tweeted Wednesday that he will make his debut in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge with Saturday’s race at Michigan Speedway. The race will be shown live on NBCSN at 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday.

The 2-mile oval was chosen by IndyCar drivers as the third track in the six-race series. Earnhardt heartily endorsed Michigan as a potential iRacing venue Monday along with Daytona and Talladega. Michigan nearly was selected by fans as the opener in the iRacing Challenge.

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Earnhardt, a longtime avid iRacing fan, had been lobbying since last Thursday that he was interested in racing with IndyCar drivers.

He has driven in the first three races of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational, finishing second to Denny Hamlin in the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Last year, he attended his first Indianapolis 500, working as an analyst as part of NBC Sports’ inaugural broadcast of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“I’d love to do it,” Earnhardt said Monday about joining the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “I think I’d love to get to know those guys.

“I had such a great time at the Indy 500 last year, and the reception that I received from other drivers there really meant a lot to me. So I know they’re all a lot of great dudes in that series that I already know that I’d love to get to know some of them even better.”

It already has been quite the week for Earnhardt, who was announced Monday as one of 15 nominees for the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The field for Saturday’s race at Michigan should include another  NASCAR driver in Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time Cup champion has driven the first two races of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge (and has plans to race IndyCar part time in the future).