|Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs|
What Will Tony Stewart Do?
Just in case you were out of the country or just haven't been paying attention, Roger Penske gave an eloquent and emotional speech in acceptance of his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship on Friday night. The Captain hit all the right notes and sounded like the championship owner he is. But tucked away in his mentions of other team owners was an offer that caught the imagination of NASCAR Nation - as well as the world of IndyCar.
"You're a car owner, you and Gene (Haas), you're a race driver, you're a track promoter. How about doing the double at Indy this year? Are you available?"
Stewart laughed, but for someone as outspoken as Smoke usually is, he's been quiet about the offer which, according to Penske is a legitimate one. "If he wants to do the Double, I'd put him in it," the Captain said in the post-banquet media availability. "We've talked about it before; I guess I made it official tonight."
For the newer fans out there, the "Double" means running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. It's not a new concept - John Andretti and Robby Gordon have done it, and Stewart did it in 1999 and 2001, not long after he came to NASCAR from what was then the Indy Racing League. Neither Gordon nor Andretti were serious threats to win either race, much less both of them, but Stewart, the 1997 IRL champion, had a legitimate shot at visiting victory lane in two iconic races in the same day.
The logistics alone are daunting - 1100 miles of driving in one day, traveling from Indiana to North Carolina, sponsorship, qualifying, weather - but it can be done and while there are other drivers whose experience would make them candidates for the effort, none would bring the publicity that Stewart would, regardless of how well they drive.
If anyone knows where Stewart stands on the matter, they're not talking. Steve Addington, crew chief for the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy, says he doesn't know. On his regular call to SiriusXM NASCAR's The Morning Drive, Addington said, "All the stars would have to line up for that to happen." He expressed that the main difficulty would be making that decision now while looking ahead at where the team would be at that point in the Cup season. He didn't rule it out, though. "If he wants to do it, everyone here would back him on it," Addington said. "It would be exciting to see happen, but I'll leave those decisions up to the powers that be."
The Captain, whose IndyCar teams have scored 15 Indianapolis 500 wins since 1969, more than any other owner, offered Tony Stewart possibly the best opportunity he will ever have to win the race that he's dreamed of winning since he was a kid growing up in Indiana. Stewart has said that he's given up on that dream, but a serious public offer from Penske has to give him pause.
The Indy Star reports that Indianapolis Motor Speedway might be willing to move the start time of the Indy 500 to better accommodate the effort of a driver to run both races. Curt Cavin reports, "IMS CEO Jeff Belskus said Tuesday the 500’s starting time could be moved up an hour -- from noon to 11 a.m. -- so it’s easier to get to Charlotte, N.C., for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series race, the Coca-Cola 600." Cavin quoted Belskus as saying, “It’s a conversation we’d be willing to have,”
The track's website also has a petition for fans to sign in the effort to get "Smoke2Indy."
In addition, the network that broadcasts the Indy 500, ABC/ESPN, has expressed support for the effort. According to USA Today, Julie Sobieski, ESPN VP of programming and acquistions said "ABC/ESPN would enthusiastically support the opportunity for said driver(s) to participate in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. We have strong partnerships with the league and speedway"
There's not been much said from the NASCAR side, but it doubtful that Charlotte Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith, Bruton's son, wouldn't be on board with kind of spectacle that Smoke doing the Double would be. The additional attention that a potential Indy 500 winner would bring to the Coke 600 has to be attractive.
So what are the obstacles?
Smoke hasn't hasn't been in an IndyCar in years - probably since 2001. The cars have changed dramatically since then. When he won his championship in 1997, the series was divided and the season was only 10 races long. In fact, he only ran 26 IRL races total, including the Doubles. In '99 he finished ninth at Indy and fourth at Charlotte, where he led 13 laps. In '01 at Indy he was sixth, leading 13 laps, and third at Charlotte. So while he didn't win either race, he certainly was competitive in both races. And lest you think he's forgotten how to drive an open-wheel car, just check out his "Seat Swap" with F1's Lewis Hamilton.
Stewart turns 42 next May. It's been 12 years since he attempted the Double and the last time he did it, he was drained by the experience. But he's as competitive as he ever was, races dozens of sprint and World of Outlaw races in addition to his Sprint Cup schedule, and can afford the best personal trainer to get him in shape.
He finished ninth in points in the 2012 season, not exactly the followup he wanted for his title defense. He's got sponsors to please and a company to run. His Stewart-Haas stable expands to three full-time teams next season. There's talk of him running a truck at the race at his track in Eldora in July, and he's likely to have some responsibilities in the planning of that event. So Smoke's schedule doesn't exactly have many gaps in it.
So many things could go wrong. Bad weather at Indy. Heaven forbid, a crash and injury at the Brickyard. Delays in transportation between the two tracks. The list goes on.
All those details are simply that, details. It doesn't matter how good for either series it would be for Stewart to run the Double. It doesn't matter who thinks he should run it or who thinks he shouldn't. The logistics don't matter nor do the potential pitfalls.
The bottom line is this: how badly does Tony Stewart want to win the Indianapolis 500?
It's just that simple. If Smoke wants to try one more time badly enough, he's got the means to make it happen. The window of opportunity for him to have a realistic shot at a victory is rapidly closing. He's got an IRL championship, two USAC championships, three NASCAR championships. He's won World of Outlaw races, the Chili Bowl, and has two Brickyard 400 wins - but for that boy from Indiana, having his face on the Borg Warner Trophy for winning the Indianapolis 500 is the holy grail of his career, and the Captain offers him the best possible opportunity to realize his dream.
So, it truly does boil down to this: WWTSD?