After collecting a $1.2 million payday for winning NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night, Jeff Burton paid rookie Tony Stewart the ultimate compliment.
Burton predicted that Stewart, who finished fourth, would not only win a race this season -- but possibly a few. As for Stewart's decision to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, Burton said: "I think he's crazy as hell."
Stewart became the first to complete both races Sunday, finishing ninth at Indianapolis before flying to Lowe's Motor Speedway here for stock car racing's 600-mile marathon. He fell 10 miles shy of completing all 1,100 possible miles -- he was four laps down when Kenny Brack took the checkered flag at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It's rare a driver succeeds at such radically different forms of auto racing. But Stewart, 28, is a rare talent.
Tim Richmond won top rookie honors in the 1980 Indianapolis 500, then won 13 NASCAR Winston Cup races before dying of complications of AIDS. IndyCar legend A.J. Foyt claimed seven NASCAR victories, and Mario Andretti added the 1967 Daytona 500 title to his impressive open-wheel resume.
But traditionally, the lines are rarely crossed. That's partly because for decades, open-wheel racing was seen as high-brow and stock car racing low-brow. NASCAR's booming popularity and fat purses are now redrawing those class lines.
The two forms of racing also call for different skills. As Al Unser Jr. likes to explain, you drive an IndyCar with your wrists -- the cars are light, skittish and sensitive. But you drive a stock car, which weighs more than twice as much, with your rear end -- feeling through your seat just when the car is on the brink of losing control.
As Stewart demonstrated Sunday, his skills are transferable.
His showing drove home another point, too: That car owner Joe Gibbs possesses equally transferable skills in the leadership arena, as effective on the racetrack as they were on the football field.
Gibbs formed his first NASCAR Winston Cup team in 1992, which proved to be his final season coaching the Washington Redskins. After claiming nine victories and more than $10.6 million (first with driver Dale Jarrett, then Bobby Labonte), Gibbs added a second team this year and hired Stewart as its driver.
After Sunday's race, both Gibbs teams rank among the top five in the chase for the 1999 series championship. Labonte, who was edged by Burton for the victory in the Coca-Cola 600 by 0.574 seconds, ranks third in the standings. Stewart is fifth.
That's impressive for several reasons. While NASCAR's multicar teams tend to have more success than single-car efforts, it typically takes a while for chemistry to gel when a team expands. Gibbs doubled his effort just this season. Moreover, the Gibbs operation is running Pontiacs, long considered a race-day underdog to the Fords and Chevrolets.
It's not a huge surprise that Labonte sits third in the standings. He's one of the sport's more shrewd and consistent racers. But for Stewart, a rookie, to be among the top 10 -- much less fifth -- is stunning.
Through 12 races, he has posted five top 10 finishes. He won the pole in Martinsville, Va., and won a nonpoints race, the Winston Open, May 22.
Should Burton's prophesy turn true, Stewart would accomplish something three-time series champion Jeff Gordon failed to do: win a NASCAR Winston Cup race as a rookie. The last to do so was the late Davey Allison, in 1987.
Stewart's 1,090-mile day began with an unenviable start on the grid at Indianapolis, qualifying 24th. His biggest fear was getting wrecked early by back-markers, but he stayed clear of trouble despite an ill-handling car.
Stewart started off at a bigger disadvantage here, lining up last in a field of 43. Within 80 laps, he moved into the top 10. By Lap 150 (of 400), he radioed his crew chief that he was feeling nauseous. On each subsequent pit stop, the crew handed him candy bars, bottles of Gatorade and ice to put on his chest in hopes of cooling him down.
"That helped him a little bit," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli. "Toward the end there, he really started to feel bad. . . . He's a fighter, and he did a great job."
This evening, his energy restored and the color back in his face, Stewart flew back to Indianapolis to collect his check at the annual Indianapolis 500 postrace banquet.