By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001
INDIANAPOLIS -- He returned to the Indianapolis 500 this year for a chance at victory in a childhood dream race.
Fully aware it could be jeopardized in any number of ways, Tony Stewart is prepared to step out of his race car to fulfill his primary obligation.
Joe Gibbs Racing and Home Depot -- Stewart's Winston Cup team and sponsor -- agreed to let him attempt the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double for the second time in three years with one stipulation.
"I've got a cutoff time that I have to leave here for Charlotte," he said.
Stewart, who starts seventh, risks heartbreak because this is by far the former IRL champion's best shot at winning the Indianapolis 500.
"The only way I was coming back here was if I was with the right team," he said.
Enter Chip Ganassi, who won the Indy 500 with Juan Montoya last year and hired Stewart for one race.
He qualified at 224.248 mph in the No. 33 G Force-Oldsmobile and in four career Indy 500s, has finished 24th, fifth, 33rd and ninth in 1999.
"Obviously he has the experience," Ganassi said. "He has the race craft. He has the ability."
Stewart must be at Lowe's Motor Speedway for the green flag. Eighth in the Winston Cup standings, he will not gain points if he doesn't start. Therefore, Richie Hearn will be on stand-by if Stewart needs to be replaced in the Indy 500.
"I've had a great career to this point, but there's a space at the top of that (resume) that only one thing can be added," Stewart said. "That's the Indianapolis 500 victory. I can't express in words how much this race means to me."
CAR: No. 39 Dallara-Oldsmobile.
LAST YEAR: DNR.
POINTS: 10th in CART.
COMMENT: His lack of luck in previous 500s reminds you of what Dale Earnhardt endured before winning the Daytona 500 in 1998. Andretti, whose 382 laps led in the 500 are the most for a non-winner, improved his speed significantly during final practice. Don't rule out a triumphant return after missing the past five races because of the CART/IRL split.
CAR: No. 41 Dallara-Oldsmobile.
LAST YEAR: Sixth.
COMMENT: Fired from his Winston Cup team this year, Gordon landed on his feet with a pair of premier car owners in A.J. Foyt and Richard Childress. The 32-year-old has finished lower than sixth only twice in six Indy 500s. That and having a four-time Indy 500 winner as a car owner makes him a contender.
Sam Hornish Jr.
CAR: No. 4 Dallara-Oldsmobile.
LAST YEAR: 24th.
POINTS: First in IRL.
COMMENT: The 21-year-old has been the surprise of the young IRL season. He has won two of three races and leads the standings in his sophomore season. But with only one career Indy 500 start -- he started 14th and finished 24th after crashing -- Hornish's lack of experience could get the better of him.
CAR: No. 8 Dallara-Oldsmobile.
LAST YEAR: 10th.
POINTS: Third in IRL.
COMMENT: True to his last name, Sharp has been just that during the month of May. He won the pole, was fastest in final practice Thursday and his Kelley Racing pit crew won the competition. A win would be a considerable improvement on past performances. He has been running at the end just twice in six tries.
CAR: No. 44 Dallara-Oldsmobile.
LAST YEAR: Seventh.
POINTS: Third in CART.
COMMENT: Along with Ganassi teammate Juan Montoya, Vasser had a dominating car last year. He led five laps and finished seventh after stopping for fuel late. Expect another strong performance for Vasser, let go from Ganassi's CART team after last season and rehired for the 500. The Las Vegas resident finished fourth here in 1994.