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Tony Stewart ready for his final ride at Indianapolis

Tony Stewart gets emotional reading letters from the important people of his NASCAR life and reflects on his career.

Tony Stewart will make his 18th and final Sprint Cup Series start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, but he’s treating it like business as usual.

“I’m not going to downplay it because it’s one of the most important weeks of the year for me, being at home and racing in front of friends and family for the last time there,” Stewart said last weekend after finishing second at New Hampshire. “It’ll be an emotional weekend, for sure, but I’ve got a plan on how I’m going to approach the weekend, and I’m just going to stick to that plan and go about our work.”

Stewart will retire from Sprint Cup competition at the end of the 2016 season and has been adamant about not receiving a big sendoff. Many have acquiesced, but Sunday is sure to have a different vibe as Indiana says goodbye to a native son.

Having grown up 45 minutes from the speedway in Rushville, Indiana, Stewart has always acknowledged how special the speedway is and how much competing there means to him. But Stewart has never been far from home.

“I grew up and lived my whole life in Indiana,” he said. “I didn’t move to Indiana. I didn’t move away from Indiana. I’m the only NASCAR driver in the Cup Series who’s from Indiana and who still lives in Indiana, and I’m proud of where I was born. I’m proud to be back.

“I still in the town I was raised in. I take a lot of pride in that. I think the state of Indiana takes a lot of pride in that, and that’s why it makes it a big weekend.”

Regardless of what happens in the Crown Royal presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400, Stewart has forever left a legacy at Indianapolis. In his previous 17 NASCAR starts, in which he holds the second best average finish (9.7), he has two wins as well as one pole. Stewart has also run three IROC races at Indianapolis in addition to five Indianapolis 500s.

Coming off his New Hampshire run, Stewart will aim for his third trip to victory lane at Indianapolis. It took seven tries to break through for his first in 2005 after trading the lead late with Kasey Kahne before driving away over the final 11 laps. Memories of that day include Stewart’s father, Nelson, waving him by lap after lap as Stewart drove by the Turn 2 suites and Stewart climbing the frontstretch fence after winning.

“It was everything to me,” Stewart said of kissing the yard of bricks. “My whole life, since I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do. Not that I had some fascination with kissing bricks as a child, but my fascination to do it (at Indianapolis) was pretty obsessive.”

While Stewart might try and treat his final trip to Indianapolis as a driver like any other, Sunday is bound to be special. And should Stewart again be victorious at Indianapolis, it would be more than just another race win.

“It’s a big deal to win here,” Stewart said in a team release. “This is an event that I definitely circle on the schedule and emotionally have a lot invested in it. To us, it’s definitely not just another stop that’s on the calendar and on the schedule. You don’t just pull in and say, ‘We’re going to go in, try to win the race and then pull out of here.’ When you’re here, you’re amped up because you’re at Indianapolis.”

Follow @KellyCrandall