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Thursday, April 26
Stewart granted permission to race Indy
By Jack Arute

Tony Stewart, former Indy Racing League champion and current driver of the Home Depot Pontiac on NASCAR's Winston Cup Tour, is close to heading back to the Indianapolis 500.

Sources close to Stewart's Joe Gibbs racing operation say that Stewart has been granted permission to compete in this year's 500-miler, provided that he meets several stipulations.

Most importantly, Stewart must agree to a rigorous strength and conditioning program to prepare him for the potential 1,100 miles of racing he will put his body through on May 27. Gibbs reasons that such a program will provide his driver with some much needed athletic development that will pay off during the remainder of NASCAR season.

Stewart did not race in last year's Indy 500, but he finished ninth in 1999, then flew to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola World 600. The racing double-header took its toll on Stewart, as he fought severe cramping during the Winston Cup race stayed away from the Indianapolis 500 last year.

Stewart was a partner with Andy Card and Larry Curry in Tri-Star Motorsports, but sold his interest in the team earlier this year.

The proposed ride for Stewart is rumored to be in the Target car owned by Chip Ganassi Racing. Target's sponsorship is another stipulation the source indicated needs resolution before Stewart can drive at Indy. Home Depot must have a presence on any car that Stewart races at the Brickyard.

As late as last week, Stewart scoffed at his rumored return to the race that first thrust him into national prominence. During FOX TV's pre-race coverage, Stewart told Chris Meyers that he was "bringing a two-car team to Indy with Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond (two former NASCAR mechanics and current Fox commentators) as my drivers."

When asked about a possible Stewart ride, Chip Ganassi said "the drivers in the cars now are the ones scheduled to run Indy."

Those two drivers are Ganassi's CART team of rookies Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian. Both have completed their Rookie Orientation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and will get their first oval racing experience this weekend in the Firestone Firehawk 600 at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Previous reports linked both Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy as potential Ganassi Indy 500 drivers, but Ganassi denied any move to replace either of his two rookies with Vasser or Tracy.

It is not necessary for Stewart to officially pre-enter the Indianapolis 500 to compete for one of the 33 starting spots. His NASCAR schedule has no event conflicting with Indy's first weekend of qualifications on May 12 and 13. Indy 500 qualifying on May 19 does conflict with NASCAR's Winston Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, but again Stewart's schedule is open on the final day of Indy 500 qualifying scheduled for Sunday, May20.

When asked about the return of Stewart to the 500, Greg Beck, co-owner with Billy Boat of Boat's Curb Records No. 98 Northern Light Series car joked, "If he can't get the deal done with Ganassi, have him call me or Billy. We'll give him a car!"

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