I left the Indianapolis airport and sped south on 465, and five minutes later felt as if I'd fallen headfirst into a John Cougar Mellencamp video. Only a few miles from Indy, silos and barns and hayfields and tractors (and little else) dotted the landscape.
It was hazy and muggy, a bit past noon, and the farmer's grind was right there in True Life Definition. Everywhere.
Columbus, Ind., is, well, sleepy. The downtown district is quite nice, quaint, with a love/hate appeal that only native small-towners can appreciate. If you want the scoop in town, hit the Fourth Street Bar, part the smoke screen and find a seat at the bar. "SportsCenter" is on every television. Granted, it was Monday night and kickoff was imminent.
I'd gone there to track down Columbus' favorite son, the kid who left to chase glory at 200 mph, but ultimately ran back because nowhere else compared. Nowhere else compared because everywhere else left him searching for the guy he used to be.
When I pulled onto the property, I smiled. It looked a lot like home. I'm a farm kid, and hated it while I lived it. But now I go back to my family's property and marvel at the simple tranquility. Same here.
There were rolling green pastures and a winding gravel road that led to an outdoorsman's paradise -- deer stands and wildlife feeders and an 8-acre lake that leaves fishermen standing in a puddle of drool.
I waited about 30 minutes, and as I stood there realized I was overdressed. But I had to be. I was there for television. It was two weeks before season's end, and ESPN had asked me to get Tony Stewart to talk. I love a good challenge.
Sometime around 11:30, Stewart showed up in a gold Chevy SUV. He wore jeans, untied work boots (on purpose, he said, so he could slide them on) and a Bass Pro Shops hoodie. He carried a Schlitz beer hat and asked me whether he should wear it. Absolutely.
It took about eight seconds for the ribbing to begin. Stewart gave it to his PR man first, then my cameraman, both good buddies of his. Given the tan-sweater-over-baby-blue-button down-with-jeans-and-cowboy-boots getup I wore, I was ready for my medicine. But, for whatever reason, he spared me.
We sat on a picnic table in front of the previously mentioned lake, Stewart camera-right, me camera-left, and began chatting. For the next 45 minutes or so, he described the decade-long transformation of Tony Stewart hothead into Tony Stewart, um, strategist.
Stewart stormed into NASCAR like the lunchroom bully 11 years ago. Brash. Angry. Unapologetic. Downright nasty. He said what he meant and didn't take it back. That often landed him in the principal's office to explain himself.
In the years since, there have been run-ins. But gradual maturation -- an acquired tact toward handling adversity -- ultimately earned him a new title: Sprint Cup team owner. Why? Honesty. Integrity. Grit. Pride, that when the checkers fly, the sport and its fans know exactly where he stands.
He's not much inclined to apologize for that.
"I've always taken a lot of pride in it," Stewart said of his honesty. "It wasn't a position where I said 'I'm gonna be this guy,' but at the end of the day when I lay my head on the pillow, I don't have to sit there and think, 'Well, I wish I would have said this, or I wish I would have been more honest about that.' I get my point across.
"I've learned how to get my point across without being abrasive about it, and without taking the emotion into it. I can get my point across and say what I want to say, and be honest about it, and still feel good about myself for doing that, but without having to hurt somebody else doing it."
Early in his NASCAR life, Stewart didn't much care whom he hurt. He reacted without thought of repercussion. When a man is the face of a Fortune 500 company, repercussion is strong and swift. There were times he went too far. Over time, he learned the days of sweeping up the mess weren't worth the instant gratitude of lashing out.
Granted, the hothead is still in there. It's just more calculated. Some folks will tell you it never left. Some folks, to this day, detest the quick tongue and intolerance for ineptitude.
Me: "What do you think that perception [of you] is? What was, and maybe is, the perception of who you are?"
Stewart: "I think everybody thinks I'm the biggest hothead in the world."
Me: "Not true?"
Stewart: "Not true."
Me: "We see a lot of it."
Stewart: "Oh yeah, but you haven't seen it for a couple years now. I think I've found out how to put it in perspective, but I wasn't always that big of a hothead. I've always been one that's always fought for what I thought was right. I always stood up for myself. I've always stood up for what I believed in. And I wear my emotions on my sleeve, and I'll never apologize for doing that."
That struck me. It is precisely why fans love Stewart.
In a world many consider sickeningly vanilla, Stewart is the one man they can count on to give it to them straight. When he looks in the rearview at the guy that entered Cup in 1999, does he like what he sees?
"The guy that came in? Yes," he said. "The guy that I became? Not so much."
When Stewart left Indiana in the late '90s, his buddies made him promise he wouldn't change -- Don't go south and get all big-money/highfalutin on us. Stay Tony.
That's natural. People don't like change. But fame and money make it virtually impossible not to change -- at least a little bit.
Many say it makes you more guarded.
It makes you pinpoint who's with you for what reasons.
That's just how it is.
Suddenly Stewart was on Coke machines, in commercials -- in Victory Lane. And as a result, he was square in the bright spotlight. He said that didn't change him, rather it changed the way his buddies saw him, and treated him.
"I wasn't treated bad -- but the way I was treated by people was totally different than the way I was used to being treated," Stewart said. "I went from being a southern Indiana kid to all of a sudden this guy "
"Yeah. It was a harder adjustment for me than it was for most people. I wasn't losing sight of who I was. I was, instead of just adjusting to it, I was fighting to stay who I was."
I'm a lot more relaxed here. There's no stress, there's no strain here. I mean, you may get busy and you may have a problem on the property that you're trying to work through, but it's totally different than the pressures of running a race team.
”-- Tony Stewart
As a result, he moved home, away from NASCAR-centric Charlotte and all that comes with it. He bought 400 acres just outside Columbus, his hometown. There, he's just Tony.
"I'm a lot more relaxed here," he said. "There's no stress, there's no strain here. I mean, you may get busy and you may have a problem on the property that you're trying to work through, but it's totally different than the pressures of running a race team. I'm not near as competitive here. When I get to the racetrack, I'm 100 percent [focused] on what I'm doing. I don't care about anything else."
That's the Stewart the public sees. Ask folks who know Stewart well, and they'll tell you until they're blue in the face that he's a completely different guy away from the track. I saw some of that during this interaction.
"The thing is, that's the way [fans] think we are all the time," he continued. "When the day is done, I'm done with that. But when I'm at the track and when I'm in that garage area, that's what I'm focused on. That's all I care about. I'm not worried about making anybody happy. I'm worried about making this race team fast."
There's a very distinctive quality about Stewart, one that draws people to him. That might be one reason his first season as an owner was so successful -- his employees bought fully into his leadership style, which is: We're here to race.
Everyone wondered how it would go. Most figured Stewart would struggle mightily trying to balance his driving life and management life. On paper, it looked impossible to fail. Hendrick cars and motors. Hendrick information. Hendrick people.
But paper ain't reality. He leaned heavily on Bobby Hutchens, Brett Frood and Eddie Jarvis to handle his daily business affairs, and pushed crew chiefs Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson to build fast race cars.
As a result, he far exceeded his wildest expectations as an owner in Year 1. Four wins, including the season's best race -- the Sprint All-Star Challenge. The points lead before the Chase reset. Both teams in the Chase. A run at a championship.
One year ago, Stewart parked the No. 20 Home Depot car in the garage at Homestead-Miami Speedway and sat in it for more than 15 minutes. Just sat and thought. He didn't want the day to end. He'd been driving that car for 10 years with his "big brother," Greg Zipadelli, as crew chief.
He was excited about the new venture, the next chapter. But his relationship with Zipadelli and Joe Gibbs wasn't bitter. He knew that when he squeezed through that window, he'd never squeeze back through it again.
As we wrapped up the interview, I wondered what it was like to walk into Gibbs' office and tell him it was over. As Stewart said, the relationship was great, so Gibbs couldn't have imagined the news. And when it hit, Gibbs was none too pleased.
"I would have rather come out here on this property, taken a chain saw and lopped off one of my arms than go through that conversation again with Joe," he laughed. "Definitely one of the hardest things I've done in my life.
"If we were fighting, if we were upset with each other, it would have made it a lot easier to go in there and have that conversation, but that wasn't the case. We weren't upset about anything; we just got a unique opportunity that may never happen again, may never come our way again."
There's a famous Mellencamp song called "Small Town." Everybody knows it by heart. When it hits the jukebox folks raise their beers and belt it out.
As I drove back up 465 toward the airport to get home for my little boy's birthday, I passed all those farms again, and thought about that verse. I always loved that song because it spoke true to my life. It speaks true to Stewart's, too.
No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And the people let me be just what I wanna be.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.