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Stewart's try to make Indy ends on paper

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Published May 24, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS - The biggest splash on "Bump Day" at the Indianapolis 500 was made by a driver who never got in a qualifying attempt.

Tony Stewart's push to make this year's Indy started as a joke. It ended Sunday with Stewart standing in a white driver's suit, determined to return next May.

"I want to be in it more than you can imagine right now," Stewart said of this year's race.

Stewart, the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup champion, created a huge stir during final-round qualifying on Indianapolis' 21/2-mile oval with a last-minute decision to join A.J. Foyt's team.

Stewart, third in the Nextel All-Star Challenge Saturday night in Concord, N.C., flew to Indianapolis to spend time at the track with friends. Foyt's repeated phone calls, however, persuaded him to get into one of his backup cars.

With less than an hour to go in qualifying, the engine running and Stewart ready to get in the car, his agent, Cary Agajanian, personally delivered a message: Stewart's NASCAR contract wouldn't allow it.

Part of the problem was Stewart drives a Chevrolet in the Nextel Cup series and Foyt's team uses Toyota engines.

"You know, you don't just do that without really having people understand and know what you're doing," Agajanian said.

Few people knew of the plan. Stewart said he hadn't even told Joe Gibbs Racing, for whom he drives full time on the Cup circuit.

Some wondered if Stewart's last-minute decision wasn't a publicity stunt. Regardless, he certainly put up a good front. He climbed back into the cockpit for a second fit, then tried on a helmet and rode to another track office to get a driver's suit and shoes.

When the clock expired and nobody else attempted to qualify, the most relieved driver was Robby McGehee. He had the slowest speed of the qualifiers at 211.631 mph and would have been bumped from the starting grid had Stewart qualified.

"Tony owes me a beer," McGehee said.

The field filled out with the traditional 33 cars, and nobody was bumped. The fastest qualifier was Greg Ray at 216.641 mph. The others making it on the final day: 1996 winner Buddy Lazier, Richie Hearn and rookies Jeff Simmons, PJ Jones and Marty Roth.

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