INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – All week, Tony Stewart downplayed the significance of his final race at Indianapolis.
He promised not to cry, not to get sentimental.
When the Brickyard 400 ended Sunday, he backtracked a bit by inviting current friend and former rival Jeff Gordon to share one final lap with him at their home track. They drove slowly around the 2.5-mile oval, side-by-side, waving to the fans who had cheered them for so many years.
“It’s probably the last time we’ll be competing here, and I couldn’t think of a better guy to share that moment with,” Stewart said after finishing 11th.
Not long ago, that kind of scene seemed an impossibility.
Stewart’s fierce, sometimes temperamental personality often clashed with Gordon’s generally good-natured, low-key demeanor to life and racing.
But over the past five years, the two Indiana drivers with similar backgrounds developed a bond and became close enough friends that they wanted to add another memorable chapter to the long history at this 2.5-mile oval.
The day began with a heartfelt speech from Gordon at the drivers’ meeting, in which he thanked Stewart for the impact he has had on the sport. When Gordon finished, Stewart received a standing ovation.
Later, Stewart returned the favor.
“It meant the world to me you know I don’t know how that all came about. Someone said something to me about Tony would like to do something like that and I said, ‘Well, let’s get through this last restart first,'” Gordon said. “It meant the world to me to have a friend and a competitor (want to do that).”
Both former Cup champions expected more from themselves on the track, though.
Stewart acknowledged on the parade lap that he thought he could win the race and spent most of the day running in the top 10 – until being hit with a speeding penalty late in the race. He later called it a mistake.
Gordon, the only five-time winner of the Brickyard, came out of retirement to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt is fighting concussion-like symptoms.
Gordon qualified 21st and wound up finishing 13th, in his first race since November, and acknowledged he “got his butt kicked” on the restarts.
Regardless, the estimated 50,000 fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway mostly got what they came to see.
“They will be rooting for Stewart and I am sure rootin’ for Gordon,” 61-year-old Indianapolis resident Bob Joslin said before the race. “They are going to be the favorites.”
While it’s been billed as their final race, it’s not likely to be their last time at the track.
Gordon expects to lead the Sprint Cup cars down the front straightaway at least one more time after the injured forced him to decline driving the pace car this year. On Friday, Gordon promised Speedway President that he would serve as the pace-car driver at a future Brickyard.
And Stewart remains the co-owner of a Sprint Cup team that will likely return with his replacement next year.
But on Sunday, none of that mattered. Sharing a big moment with a friend, did.
“Thank you to Tony Stewart,” Gordon said. “It meant a lot to me, that he invited me to come take that last lap with him.”