Tony Stewart is someday going to break through and win the big races that always seem to get away from him.
He’s had chances at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and has had victory in sight at the Daytona 500, only to come up short at the very end.
If Stewart ever scores those wins, he might just climb out of his car and call it a career.
“If I could get everything done I want to get done, I would probably be gone from here by now -- I would have won everything I wanted to win,” Stewart said.
When the day comes that Stewart quits full-time racing, he’ll walk away with an impressive resume that will rank him among the most talented drivers ever.
He has nine championships in various forms of racing, starting with a Karting title he won in 1980 at 8 years old. He was the first driver in history to win USAC’s Triple Crown in 1995 and he won the IRL series title in 1997.
He then became the first IRL driver to successfully transition into NASCAR, where he claimed the 2002 series championship.
All those championships have given Stewart a greater respect for the crown jewels on every schedule. He understands what an Indianapolis 500 title means to a driver resume, and the same for a Daytona 500 win.
A driver can win 100 championships, but will forever be recognized for the big wins.
“I remember what it was like to win the IRL championship,” Stewart said. “The next year, it was a weight lifted off my shoulders. I could concentrate on individual races. I didn’t even look hardly at the points sheet.”
Perhaps that explains why Stewart hasn’t really been a factor in the NASCAR’s championship race since his 2002 title. He’s already got that trophy, its the others he needs to complete his career.
He came close again last weekend, leading a race-high 107 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500.
But with the finish line in sight, he again had the biggest win of his career snatched away when good buddy Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed him out of the draft during a late-race pass for the lead and Stewart was shuffled back into traffic.
He ended up a distant seventh, bitterly disappointed again after joining the late Dale Earnhardt in the record book for futility. Earnhardt was the last driver to dominate the race and not win, leading 107 laps in 1993 and failing to earn a trip to Victory Lane.
And don’t forget, Stewart led the most laps at Daytona last year, too. But in the end, Earnhardt Jr. had the better car and Stewart ended up pushing him to the win.
Earnhardt Jr. offered no apologies for not returning the favor this year.
“I wasn’t going to sit on his bumper till the checkered fell. You know, that wouldn’t have been a whole lot of fun,” Junior said. “I had a chance to be back-to-back Daytona 500 champ. That would have been awesome. I felt like Tony can appreciate somebody trying to win the race.”
Maybe someday he will.
For now, all Stewart knows is he is 0-for-7 in the Daytona 500 and the first driver since Bobby Allison to lead the most laps in consecutive 500s since he did it in 1981 and 1982.
But Allison won in 1982.
Stewart is still trying.
“We could write a book about it. How many years did Dale Earnhardt go through it?” crew chief Greg Zipadelli moaned. “Hopefully we don’t have to wait that long (20 years) to win one of these things.”
As long as the title eludes him, Stewart might stick around NASCAR.
He’s made no secret of his desire to get out while he’s still young -- he’s 33 now -- and is already planning for his future. He owns teams in the World of Outlaws and USAC racing series and recently bought famed Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio -- the dirt track where he started his career.
“You never know, tomorrow could be my last day in a race car,” he said. “If something happens and I got hurt ... if I can’t drive a race car, then what am I going to do?
“At least this would be something for me to do. It gives me an option for something else to do the rest of my life is something happened.”
So now he spends his free time-- what little of it he has--learning the ins and outs of running a race track.
“I don’t know how to promote races yet. I’ll learn. I can promise you that,” he said.
These ventures are the few things that truly get Stewart excited. He has no interest in becoming an elder statesman on NASCAR’s Nextel Cup tour, stepping in as the aging veterans turn in their car keys.
He doesn’t want to be Rusty Wallace, front and center in the weekly driver meeting with an open line of communication to NASCAR’s hierarchy.
For now, all he cares about is chasing those elusive victories -- his next battle comes in August at Indy’s Brickyard 400 because he says he’s taking a break from the heartbreaking Indianapolis 500 right now -- and building his portfolio.
“I might be one of those guys who wakes up one morning and say ‘I’ve had enough’ or decide to sign another five-year contract,” he said. “You know me. It may depend on which way the wind’s blowing right now.”