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.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”