INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony Stewart seemed to be on a date with destiny in both of his wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where there was an overwhelming sense in 2005 and 2007 that nothing could get in his way in the race to Victory Lane.
Even though he seemed to be a lock both of those years, Stewart never allowed himself to think the race was his for the taking. He'd suffered too many heartaches at the Brickyard to assume anything was a given.
"I know how much this track can change. You can have a great race car in practice and then when you start the race, the conditions seem to change a little bit," Stewart said. "It's just a battle of trying to keep the car balanced all day. Even during the race, you can have a fast car at the beginning and lose the handle at the end. You have to make sure you have a car that's adjustable all day."
Stewart doesn't appear to be a lock to win Sunday, but he should at least be a contender. His Stewart-Haas Racing team turned a corner two weeks ago at New Hampshire, where Ryan Newman led his boss to a 1-2 finish in both qualifying and the race.
The roll continued into this week, when Stewart won his first ever World of Outlaws race.
So his mood was sky high when he arrived at the Brickyard. That's a bit of a change for Stewart, who has admittedly gotten himself too stressed out about racing at the track he so adores.
He had a shot to win the 1996 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie until a broken part ended his race on lap 82. He was leading in 1998 when his engine failed right after he'd moved to the front.
Then came NASCAR, where Stewart was a threat to win in 2001 until he bounced off the wall racing with Dale Jarrett for the lead. He admitted afterward, "I was just trying too hard." The next year he led four times for 43 laps but faded at the end, and 2003 saw a slow final pit stop and a late caution ruin another chance.
The 2005 victory came when Stewart had finally found some peace both with himself -- he had moved home to Indiana earlier that year in a search for some serenity -- and the track. That breakthrough win ended the love-hate relationship Stewart always had with Indy.
"I think I got by the hate part once we won the second one," he said. "You love the place because of the history of it, because it's home. The hate part was we worked so hard, led so many laps, couldn't win. Once we won the race, think it took that side of the equation away, made it that much better. We got to enjoy it that much more afterward."
GORDON'S GUILT: With a record $119 million in winnings in his NASCAR career, Jeff Gordon is quite accustomed to the finer things in life.
A fact-finding mission to Congo last week has left the four-time NASCAR champion feeling a bit guilty about the luxuries he enjoys.
"It was an experience that will change me forever," Gordon said of last week's trip with the Clinton Global Imitative.
"I feel guilty about buying a bottle of water for two bucks. You look at your refrigerator and you go like, `Oh my gosh, there's so much waste here.' You just start looking at every aspect of your life and the things you take for granted."
Gordon made the 28-hour flight to Africa following the July 17 race at New Hampshire. He spent almost three days in Congo, where he saw children walking barefoot along busy roads and women carrying sacks of coal on their backs. The father of two young children said he didn't expect to see such struggles.
"When you come back, you can't help but have that impact every decision you make, the way you look at things," he said. "It just makes me want to cut back on a lot of things that I would say are not necessary."
Gordon has had many new experiences this season, his first with the Drive to End Hunger as the primary sponsor of his No. 24 Chevrolet. The AARP Foundation has used the sponsorship -- the first major cause-related sponsorship in NASCAR -- to raise money and awareness of hunger in America.
Since partnering with Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports at the start of the year, the campaign has delivered 2.7 million meals to hunger relief organizations near NASCAR tracks. Gordon personally visited a New Hampshire food bank, and on Friday presented a $10,000 check from AARP Foundation to the Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.
DALE AND DANICA: Dale Earnhardt Jr. would love the opportunity to give Danica Patrick a full-time job in NASCAR.
Patrick could leave IndyCar at the end of this season to focus only on NASCAR. She's so far driven 19 Nationwide Series races for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports team.
"I would like for her to run full-time and I'm sure she is considering that, and I think she would enjoy it," Earnhardt said.
But he said he's unsure of what Patrick will do, even though he believes she's happy at JRM. Patrick has developed a decent rapport with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., and flirted with victory earlier this month at Daytona, where she led 13 laps before the last-lap chaos dropped her to a 10th-place finish.
"I feel confident that she's content where she is and happy with what we're doing. I think things are looking positive for us to put something together," he said. "I think she's doing great. She's way ahead of the curve. We've had the opportunity to put several drivers in that car and her performance is right on par with all those drivers.
"We started out struggling and she had a steep, steep climb to go and she's really come a long way. I'm excited about what the potential is with her going forward."
Patrick has six more scheduled NASCAR starts this season.
DRIVER SAFETY: Kyle Busch plans to work with the B.R.A.K.E.S young driver safety program in the wake of his recent speeding ticket.
Busch was ticketed for driving 128 mph in a 45 mph zone in a loaned Lexus in May. Now he'll partner with the program -- Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe - that was founded in 2008 after drag racer Doug Herbert lost two sons in a car accident.
Busch will do public service announcements and a monetary donation through the Kyle Busch Foundation.
"Those guys have a great program and do a lot of great work for kids that may not know exactly what driving a car entails," Busch said. "It's certainly a lot more than just being able to make it from point A to point B sometimes. I'll be working toward about 300 of those new kids getting through the program and taking some initiative there to help them through it and give them some advice and give them my story."
Busch is due in court Aug. 23 on charges of speeding and reckless driving.
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