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Fiery racers forge bond

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tony Stewart’s first memory of A.J. Foyt is watching him hammer on the engine of a balky IndyCar in the pits at the Indianapolis 500.

Foyt took a few whacks, then climbed back into the cockpit and roared away.

"I was amazed," Stewart said Friday while seated next to Foyt at Daytona International Speedway. "After I hit it that hard with a hammer, I wouldn’t have got in and drove it."

But that’s exactly the kind of fiery, win-at-all-costs mentality that Foyt saw in Stewart when they became friends a few years later.

Foyt, long retired from driving but still a car owner in the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series, accepted Stewart’s invitation to come to Daytona and watch the NASCAR star race a Chevrolet bearing the No. 14 that Foyt made famous. But these two hard-driving, temperamental men share a lot more than just a car number.

"He calls a spade a spade and kind of calls it like it is," Foyt said, glancing at Stewart. "That’s what made A.J. what he is today. Good or bad, I meant everything and I really believed it. Today, they sugarcoat it. He doesn’t."

Both have been known to let their tempers get the best of them at times, on and off the track. They also have similar physical characteristics — a bit on the beefy side.

"Somewhere down the line some genes must have crossed," Foyt said.

The similarities don’t end there.

Both have shown talent and versatility, winning races and championships in a variety of series, from IndyCars to sprint cars to stock cars and more.

Foyt distinguished himself as a successful owner/driver, a role Stewart took on several years ago with a short-track team. Stewart expanded his ownership duties to NASCAR this year, partnering with businessman Gene Haas in Stewart-Haas Racing.

One of the two-time NASCAR champion’s first decisions as a team owner was to ask Foyt for permission to use his No. 14 on his new ride. It’s a fitting tribute since the 37-year-old Stewart likes to say he and his 74-year-old hero are like twin brothers born nearly 40 years apart.

"We just enjoy the same things," Stewart said. "But I’m proud of that."

One thing the longtime friends don’t share, though, is a victory in the Daytona 500.

Foyt won NASCAR’s biggest race in 1972, part of a resume that includes four Indianapolis 500s wins and victories in both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Daytona 24 hours.

Since making the tough decision in the late 1990s to leave open-wheel racing, which was what attracted him to the sport, Stewart has become one of NASCAR’s biggest stars.

He has won races at Daytona, just not the most important one. Stewart has come close, finishing second in the 2004 Daytona 500 and third last year.

"Yeah, it’s a little frustrating because I want to win so badly," Stewart said last week. "But I want to win every time I race, so that’s nothing new. If I don’t win the Daytona 500 in my career, I’m not going to sit around crying."

Despite having only the few months since the end of last season to concentrate on getting his new team ready for 2009, Stewart already has shown he will be competitive this year. He finished third in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout on Feb. 7 and second in his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday.

"I’ve been obviously very ecstatic that we’ve run the way we have," Stewart said.

Foyt gave Stewart an A-minus for Thursday’s qualifier.

Somebody asked Foyt, sitting on Stewart’s pit box for the races this week, where Stewart lost points.

"He finished second," Foyt said.

Maybe Stewart should have taken a few whacks at the engine.

 

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