2001 Indy 500

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Ready to pull it off

Stewart complets final preparations for Sunday

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Posted: Thursday May 24, 2001 7:54 PM

  Tony Stewart Tony Stewart finished ninth at Indy and fourth in the Coca-Cola 600 in 1999. AP

INDIANAPOLIS (CNNSI.com) -- Richard Simmons has nothing on Tony Stewart.

In what shaped up as a dress rehearsal for his 1,100-mile, two-race marathon Sunday, Stewart drove in the final Indianapolis 500 practice -- Carburetion Day -- then was whisked away for a flight to Charlotte, N.C., where he prepared to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600.

"I'm just keeping focused on the goal," Stewart said. "I know what I want to accomplish."

The odd part of his odyssey Thursday was that he was fated to start from the back of the field in the NASCAR race regardless of where he qualified. That's the penalty for missing the pre-race driver's meeting, which will take place while he's in flight from Indy to North Carolina late Sunday afternoon.

Still, drivers have come from the back of the pack to claim victories, and winning two races in the same day isn't completely out of the question for Stewart.

He won six NASCAR races in 1999, and took rookie-of-the-year honors. He's eighth in the standings this season. He won the IRL title in 1997. As soon as he signed on with Chip Ganassi to race in the Indy 500, he became a favorite -- a product of Ganassi's top-notch team and Stewart's history of success in open-wheel racing.

"It says a lot about him," Ganassi said. "He steps in, and right away, he gets with the program. Obviously, he has the experience. He has the racecraft. He has the ability. He's one of the few drivers you can get from outside the circle of day-in, day-out open wheel drivers who is a legitimate contender right away."

Stewart finished ninth at Indy and fourth in the Coca-Cola 600 in 1999, a grueling day that ended with the driver being helped from the car and wheeled on a stretcher to the care center.

He's optimistic about this year, mainly because he has changed his diet and improved his conditioning. He's bringing the trainer from his NASCAR team, Al Shuford, to monitor what he eats on every stop of this crazy trip.

Shuford has set up a strict diet for Stewart in hopes of avoiding the dehydration and exhaustion he endured in 1999. It won't be mini bagels and 20 bottles of Gatorade, the food and beverages of choice that led to the problems two years ago.

"There are some fatigue factors, but are we worried about it? No," Shuford said. "We've been addressing those issues for a long time, so we don't have to worry about it on race day."

Among the issues Stewart can't control is the weather, and there's no guarantee it will be good.

The latest forecast called for a 50 percent chance of showers on Sunday. Because Stewart's itinerary is planned to the minute, he'll almost surely have to withdraw from the Indy 500 if there are any delays because his first obligation is to Joe Gibbs' NASCAR team.

In fact, finishing in the top three will cramp his schedule slightly, cutting into the 27-minute window built in for his arrival to Lowe's Motor Speedway by helicopter and his rush for the driver's seat of the NASCAR car.

"The best-case scenario is we win, get the roses, drink the milk and say, 'We've gotta go,'" Shuford said. "We've got Plans A, B, C, D, E and F. The big problem is if we have to go to Plan G, because we don't have a Plan G."

Somewhere among those plans, Ganassi lined up Richie Hearn to take Stewart's place in the Indy race should he be forced to drop out.

"I'm probably the only person in the paddock praying for rain," Hearn said. "With my luck, it will probably rain all day and Tony will be able to come back Monday and race."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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