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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.”

Cooper Webb leaps from obscurity to Supercross lead

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Cooper Webb could not even locate the radar tower before the 2019 season began – let alone expect to see his number dead center in the radar screen.

His ascent to 450 competition came with little fanfare. Finishing 13th in Supercross in 2017 and then eighth in Motocross, Webb did not turn many heads as a rookie. Last year was more of the same.

Through Round 7 at Arlington, Webb failed to record a single top five. That elusive result would come the following week at Tampa with a fourth-place finish. Two weeks later, he stood on the podium at Daytona for the only the second time in his Supercross 450s career. But at season’s end, Webb was only ninth in the standings in both Supercross and Motocross.

No one expected much from him when Anaheim rolled around this year.

Webb started the season much the same as he ended 2018. A fifth-place finish in Anaheim I in muddy and equalizing conditions was followed by a modest 10th at Glendale, but the rider from North Carolina believed in himself.

In professional racing, nothing is more difficult than winning the first race. Webb’s first taste of victory came in Heat 1 of the Triple Crown at Anaheim II. Everyone remained skeptical – it was only one heat race after all. The skepticism turned to interest when he won Heat 2. Then Webb finished third in Heat 3 to take the overall victory. It was his first win in the 450 class.

That was all it took to unleash his potential. Webb won the following week in Oakland and then again two weeks later in Minneapolis.

The Supercross riders left Minnesota and headed straight down Interstate 35 to Arlington with four of them separated by two points. All eyes were focused on Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, Marvin Musquin – and, oh yeah Webb who sat in second.

Someone was likely to stumble in Arlington and the odds on favorite to do so was Webb. That seemed to be confirmed once the feature started. While the three more experienced riders led by Tomac scooted away from the field, Webb was mired outside the top five for the first six lap.

It was Tomac who tripped and fell, however. Webb passed the stricken rider and surged to fifth on Lap 7. He was in fourth by Lap 10 and third on Lap 16.  As Webb and teammate Musquin battled for the second, they slowly reeled in the leader Roczen. Once Webb broke free on the conflict with the runner-up position firmly his, he could see the red plate on Roczen’s Honda like a cape being waved in front of a bull.

Webb charged through the final six laps getting closer and closer until he edged Roczen for the closest finish in Supercross history. It was Webb’s fourth victory of the season, coming only four weeks after he scored his first career win.

Relive the final laps in the video posted above.

As incredible as Webb’s rise to the points lead is, it has been done before.

Last year Jason Anderson seemingly came out of nowhere to lead the standings after Round 2. Anderson held the advantage for the remainder of the year, while Webb has been part of a game of hot potato in which no one seems to want to don the red plate for more than a week.

The pressure continues to mount. Webb now has a two-point advantage over Roczen, who is the only rider to sweep the top five this season.

Webb’s advantage over third is a mere four points, while Musquin has a current five-race streak of podium finishes to his credit.

Tomac’s trouble in Texas serves as a cautionary tale that a single loss of focus can be devastating and Webb still lacks the seat time of his three principal rivals, but last week’s incredible come-from-behind victory is showing that Webb is riding above experience level.

Follow the complete Supercross and Motocross seasons on NBC Sports, Gold.