ANDERSON —  Tony Stewart is eating a banana. He’s walking through the pits with no entourage. He’s shaking hands with people who walk by. He’s trying to be just another guy leading up to the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway.

But he’s not really just another guy. Sure, the track is packed every year for this race. It sold out shortly before race time last year, but it’s never sold out well ahead of time like this year. There’s never been this big of a commotion around one car before.

In past years, there weren’t tiny old men walking back to their cars after waiting two hours in line for an autograph from Tony Stewart only to get cut off at the last second because they didn’t have tickets.

This year, there was an extra buzz around the Little 500, and that buzz came from Stewart, the NASCAR great who just wanted to take part in this tradition. When the race began, though, he was, in fact, just another car. 

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“It’s Tony Stewart,” Anderson Speedway President Rick Dawson said. “But on this track, around here, he’s just another driver.”

Stewart began the race in 21st. He stayed steady all race, yet at some point, the talent of being three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion takes over.

In the last 50 laps, Stewart pushed himself through the field and willed himself to third place. Kyle Hamilton won the race. Stewart was pouring with sweat when he exited the car after the comeback performance.

“That was fun,” he said. “It was everything we said it was going to be and more.”

It was everything Stewart wanted. He got to run in the legendary short track race long after he made his way up to sprint cars. He was the star of the show.

But the people at Anderson Speedway certainly won’t say Stewart was the reason for this chaotic crowd.

The people here will tell you this race means something every year. It’s packed every time. Maybe not this packed. Still packed, though.

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Talk to five people at Anderson Speedway and four will say they were coming for the race regardless, Stewart was just a bonus. It’s people like Cory Vanderwal who drove here from Iowa with his brother. He always wanted to see this race, he said. People were here for the eighth or fourth or 12th times. Stewart wasn’t the impetus for many in attendance.

That still doesn’t quite explain the huddle surrounding Stewart’s No. 69 Mean Green car.

It leaves out why every person who’s ever known somebody who once interacted with Stewart back in the day made sure to go up and tell him. It leaves out all the Tony Stewart merchandise being worn and the cheers each time Stewart made a pass during the race.

Regardless of how important Stewart was to this race, the race clearly meant something to Stewart.

He was beating himself up after, calling himself the weak spoke on the wheel at times. United States Auto Club chaplain Tim Spillman was praying with Stewart minutes before the engines started. Stewart’s eyes shut tight as he prepared himself for race mode.

He didn’t win, but he at least got to drive in this Indiana tradition. He got to go toe-to-toe with the top of the field and come out on the podium.

He also got to let loose.

“I’m just glad I get to have a beer,” Stewart said. “I haven’t had a beer in three months. My girlfriend’s been trying to get me in shape.”

Stewart then chugged an entire Busch Beer, and he went on being just another one of the guys.