LAS VEGAS — Tony Stewart has long insisted he’s given up his childhood dream of winning the Indianapolis 500.
He might have to reconsider.
What seemed like a throwaway line in Roger Penske’s speech Friday night appears to be an actual offer for Stewart to drive the Indianapolis 500 next year. The team owner tossed it out while accepting the Sprint Cup trophy and lauding Stewart, last year’s champion.
“I know we took your spot this year,” Penske said. “But you’re a car owner . you’re a race driver, you’re a track promoter — how about doing the double at Indy this year? Are you available?”
The banquet room at Wynn Las Vegas Resort broke out into laughter, as most everyone assumed Penske was joking.
But later, when given the chance to shrug it off as a lighthearted moment with Stewart, Penske insisted he was very serious.
“If he wants to do the double, I’d put him in it,” Penske said. “We’ve talked about it before, I guess I made it official tonight.”
And, Penske Racing President Tim Cindric backed the team owner later that evening, confidently predicting the team can convince NASCAR’s three-time champion to sign on for the race. Cindric even asked on Twitter if the team can count on Stewart for the race.
Stewart did not comment after the banquet, only smiling tightly before walking away.
Surely this is an offer the Indiana native can’t refuse?
Penske-owned cars have won the Indianapolis 500 15 times, and it’s the one race “The Captain” holds higher than anything else. Penske has not won it since Helio Castroneves’ 2009 victory.
The Indy 500 also is Stewart’s favorite race, but he failed to win it five tries and last entered it in 2001.
The partnership seems perfect on paper.
Penske’s IndyCar operation is powered by Chevrolet, which is Stewart’s longtime manufacturer. Although the Indianapolis 500 is a spectacular race that doesn’t need any sideshows, Penske luring Stewart into the field would bring attention to the slumping IndyCar Series at a time its getting battered for off-track politics.
And, there could be an altruistic motive for Penske, who accepted his first Cup championship Friday night with Brad Keselowski 40 years after first entering NASCAR. With really nothing left to accomplish on his racing resume, Penske could generously be trying to give Stewart, considered to be one of the few remaining pure American racers, a shot at realizing his dream.
It would be a feel good story, too. The last native Hoosier to win the Indy 500 was Wilbur Shaw in 1940.
Stewart ran the Indy 500 five times, starting from the pole as a rookie in 1996 and leading 44 laps before his engine failed. His highest finish was fifth in 1997.
Stewart twice attempted to run both the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on the same day: In 1999, he was ninth at Indy and fourth at Charlotte, and in 2001, he was sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte.
He hasn’t tried Indianapolis since, and has seemingly let go of trying to win the race. He has twice won the Brickyard 400, NASCAR’s race at storied Indy.
“The hard part for me was you make that decision when you sign up to do (NASCAR),” Stewart said last January. “The decision you make, you have to come to peace with yourself with saying ‘I’m not going to do this.’ That was my childhood dream anyway. It was hard knowing when I signed that (NASCAR) contract that I was writing off the opportunity to go race at Indy.
“It’s figuring out at the end of the day what do you really want to do. I guess that’s the part that even though it was hard to watch opening day of practice at Indianapolis, I’m enjoying what I’m doing, too, and this is what I want to do at the end of the day. It makes you want 30-hour days and 400-day years and we always want to do more than what we’re capable of doing, but the reality is you have to pick at some point and choose your career path. This is what I’ve done.”
The window for changing his mind is closing, too.
Stewart will be 42 next May — the same age idol AJ Foyt was when he won the 500 in 1977. Arie Luyendyk was 43 when he won 1997, Emerson Fittapaldi won at 46 and Bobby Unser and Al Unser both won at 47.
Penske said it would have to take some scheduling adjustments between IndyCar and NASCAR in order for Stewart to run the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he’s not sure the two series could work together to make it happen.
“Like Republicans and Democrats, it’s hard to get them on the same page,” Penske said. “IndyCar and NASCAR, getting them on the same page to do a double, might be a difficult task.”
There could be a potential sponsor conflict, as well.
Stewart is sponsored in NASCAR by Mobil 1, while Penske has a deal in both series with Shell Pennzoil. Either sponsor could balk at a potential pairing, but Mobil had previously been a longtime Penske partner.
And, Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli recently voiced his opposition to Danica Patrick running Indy because of the distractions it would create for the NASCAR team. Zipadelli was Stewart’s crew chief when he did both of his doubles.
“I lived through it twice with one of the greatest racers I’ve ever seen, and trying to run both of those races is just stupid,” Zipadelli said in October. “She needs to focus on the Cup car if that’s what she wants to do. If she’s here to be in NASCAR, then she needs to be here focused on NASCAR.”
Penske said Friday night adding Stewart to the Indy 500 would be good for the race and IndyCar, and Penske Racing could pull it off — but only if it was a real effort.
“You could put something together that could be pretty good,” Penske said. “But I said earlier that it’s hard to get the two series together on anything, and you’d have to make it work so he could get back and forth and make it be meaningful for our team. It wouldn’t be worth it for him or for us if it wasn’t for a full effort.”