INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Stewart lingered. He wanted one more lap, one more minute, one more moment.
A sizzling day, a finish outside the top 10 and a NASCAR call that puzzled his team did not dampen Stewart’s spirit after Sunday’s Brickyard 400 — his final NASCAR Sprint Cup start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track he’s revered since childhood.
“I’m not sure I’m ready for it to be over,’’ Stewart said, smiling and looking fresh about 20 minutes after the race on a day where the heat index soared above 100 degrees. “I’m going to miss driving around here. Twenty great years of memories here.’’
Stewart soaked it in all weekend. Even in the middle of the night.
Around 2 a.m. Sunday, after returning from a sprint car race, Stewart drove around Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield. The driver named after Indy 500 icon A.J. Foyt — Stewart’s first name is Anthony — wanted to take in sights he’s seen for years but what would be a final time as a competitor.
“I wanted to see it the night before my last race,’’ said Stewart, who finished 11th. “It’s just little things like that that mean a lot to me. This place is always going to be home.’’
Sunday was a day he won’t forget, beginning and ending with rival and friend Jeff Gordon.
“We’re in your home state,’’ Gordon said, looking at Stewart in the audience. “You were born and raised in Indiana. You’re at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I know as we’ve gotten to know one another as friends and competitors over the years what this place means to you. I think that this is not a year about saying goodbye. It’s a year about celebrating what you’ve done on the track and off the track.
“I think it’s only fitting that all of us in this room, along with all the millions of fans around the world, recognize what you’ve brought to this sport.’’
The drivers gave Stewart, a three-time series champion, a standing ovation. Later, when he was introduced before the race, the fans gave one of their loudest cheers of the day for the native Hoosier.
After more than three hours of hard racing, Stewart and Gordon were together again for a final salute after race, running side by side. It was an idea Stewart had late in the race.
That completed what was an up and down day for the two-time Brickyard 400 winner.
“It wasn’t exactly what we wanted by any means,’’ Stewart said. “We just couldn’t get the balance right today and my guys fought hard on it.’’
The race didn’t get easier when Stewart was penalized for speeding on pit road on Lap 119. The caution came out while he was in the pits. Because he had a penalty, he couldn’t use the wave around to get back on the lead lap. He restarted 31st.
“I still need to talk to NASCAR about that call,’’ said crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. “I’m not saying they’re wrong. I felt like we were still on the lead lap there and they put us a lap down on the tail end. That put us 31st. To come out 11th, I’d say it’s a good day, but disappointing because we felt we had a better car than that. We’ll take it and go forward.’’
Stewart has finished 11th or better five of the last six races. The exception was Daytona earlier this month when he was collected in a crash. This is the best stretch Stewart has had in Cup since the 2011 Chase when he won his last title.
But the best moment for Stewart, was that last lap, and a last cheer from the fans.
“It’s been one helluva ride,’’ Stewart said. “There’s a lifetime worth of memories in 20 years.’’