Retired NASCAR star Tony Stewart crosses Little 500 start off of his bucket list

Aaron Bearden/Kickin the Tires

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

ANDERSON, Ind. — After 498 grueling laps, Tony Stewart emerges from his No. 69 Mean Green Hoffman Racing machine.

Just moments removed from a third-place finish in his Pay Less Little 500 debut, sweat drips down his driver’s suit. The soreness of a physical race begins to set in.

With a sold-out crowd filtering out of Anderson Speedway behind him, Stewart enjoys a beverage from one of his Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR team’s many sponsors – Busch Beer – and talks with runner-up Bobby Santos III about the race they’ve just completed. A cast of characters including Wood Brothers Racing legend Leonard Wood and sprint car veteran Dave Darland swing by to congratulate him on a job well done.

When called upon, Stewart makes his way to the track’s small stage assembled on the frontstretch, taking pictures as a member of the podium and congratulating race winner Kyle Hamilton. One team picture and a handful of pleasantries complete, the Columbus, Indiana native heads up the quarter-mile track’s first turn to head back to the garage area, where his spacious motor coach lies.

Through it all, the Hoosier carries something that’s been sorely missing in recent years – a constant, genuine smile.

In the midst of his first year of “retirement” from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Stewart, a three-time champion of the tour, has set out on the beginning of a quest to knock races off of his bucket list – events both near and afar.

One of the first events to cross off that list was the Little 500.

Stewart – a native of nearby Columbus, Indiana – has long known of the chaotic 500-lap feature at Anderson,  a prelude of sorts to the following day’s Indianapolis 500. Given his dominance in the midget racing ranks in his younger years, its a surprise to most that he’d never ran it before the race’s 69th running.

Yet there he sat early on Saturday afternoon, alongside racing veteran Ken Schrader and a few others in the race’s rookie meeting, listening to a group including two-time winner Jacob Wilson explain to them that they need to be patient, drive cautiously during the race’s unique three-wide starts, etc.

Starting 21st, on the outside or row seven, it was those aforementioned three-wide starts that concerned Stewart the most entering the day.

“The thing I was worried about – they said a lot of these guys weren’t patient,” Stewart said. “I thought in the start that everyone was patient. Everybody around me did a really good job. I talked to the guys in the row behind me, in my row.

“Starting on the outside, Aaron Pierce was the one inside me. I thought the best strategy was to get in behind him and not get hung up in that third lane. I talked to the guys in the row behind me so they understood that was what I was going to do, and it made the start really painless. Everybody gets down to two-wide really quick, and that makes thing really manageable.”

In the end, the 1997 Indy car champ believes the start proved similar to another notable short track.

“Never done the three-wide part, other than the Indy 500,” Stewart told Kickin’ the Tires. “But the start of it was similar to what you get at Martinsville (Speedway) for the first three-or-four laps. Until everybody gets things sorted out, you’re lifting way earlier, using a lot of brake because guys are having to check up.”

With the chaotic start complete, Stewart set about doing the thing that makes or breaks a Little 500 run – surviving.

Tony Stewart’s main goal on Saturday: Keep this car clean. (Photo: Aaron Bearden/Kickin’ the Tires)

A race known for its attrition, Saturday’s Little 500 saw nine cautions and a red flag in the opening 300 laps. Nearly half of the field found themselves involved in an early incident, and even more were eliminated by a blown motor or mechanical failure. Former winner Chris Windom, young prospect Austin Nemire and veteran Jerry Coons, Jr. were among those sidelined far before the finish.

“After talking to Rob Hoffman and Eric Gordon, it was exactly what they said it was going to be,” Stewart said. “The strategy, how to run the race, was exactly what they said. It played out how we thought it would. You just stay out of trouble and don’t do anything to jeopardize yourself.”

Whether by luck, skill or some combination of the two, Stewart avoided each major incident to find himself inside of the top five in the second half of the race, though he couldn’t quite call his night mistake-free.

“I made two mistakes during the night, got into lapped cars that could’ve taken us out,” Stewart said. “It hurt the car. It hurt the steering in it. I don’t know whether it got the toe or what, but it definitely hurt it.

“I was surprised it even finished third, to be honest.”

In the end, the Hoosier was left two laps down, but celebrating a rare podium finish for a rookie in one of America’s most challenging races.

It isn’t quite what Stewart wanted to accomplish on the day, but is a result he’s proud of nonetheless.

“I’ll take a third here tonight,” Stewart says. “The hard part is that you can talk about how the race plays out, but until you start running it, it’s hard to know for sure what to do. I wanted to finish on the lead lap, but we got as close to that as we could.”

Resting in his motor coach after the race, Stewart welcomes a host of visitors, his girlfriend and faithful dog by his side.  One friend swings by long enough to gloat about Schrader, whom earned an impressive 1oth-place finish in his debut.

“Not bad for an old man,” she jokes as she walked back toward the garage area.

An hour removed from his first Little 500, Stewart lays on his couch and watches TV, a couple bags of ice easing the pain of one of a grueling race.

A quick glance in the moments fosters thoughts that this Little 500 appearance will be his last. But Stewart, a true racer’s racer, refuses to rule out the possibility.

“Let me see how I feel tomorrow,” he says. “When I wake up, we’ll go from there. But it definitely was a blast, for sure.”

Sunday, Stewart will play the role of sponsor and owner He’ll watch as Jay Howard – sponsored by Stewart’s Team One Cure foundation – competes in the Indy 500, and SHR’s quartet of drivers battle in the Coca-Cola 600.

This is the Stewart most mainstream fans will see – an owner, watching on as others battle for race wins in his name.

However, for those willing to brave the trip to a short track, Smoke can still be found among the pack, hungry and talented as ever.

After all, his bucket list isn’t empty yet.

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