Posted: 21 Sep 2011 09:33 PM PDT
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – A week ago while on a press junket in Chicago to promote the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, Tony Stewart proclaimed he’d be a “bumbling idiot” if he won this year’s NASCAR Sprint CuSeries championship. After all, the driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) hadn’t won a race in 2011 and squeaked his way into the Chase field with only three top-fives and 11 top-10s during the 26-race regular season.
By Stewart’s standards, it had been a miserable season. The two-time Sprint Cuchampion (2002 and 2005) had his lowest totals of top-fives, top-10s and laps led prior to the final 10 races of the season than during any of his 12 previous years in Sprint Cup.
Then round No. 1 of the Chase took place Monday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and when the checkered flag dropped, Stewart had his 40th career Sprint Cuwin, his series-best third at Chicagoland and his first of the season. The victory ended a 32-race winless streak and vaulted Stewart from ninth in points to second, just seven markers behind series leader Kevin Harvick.
Now Stewart rolls into New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for round No. 2 of the Chase with a bounce in his steand many wondering if the driver nicknamed “Smoke” was just blowing smoke when he downplayed his Chase chances.
For New Englanders, this might sound familiar. After all, it was the 2004 Boston Red Sox who were described as “idiots” by first baseman and cult hero Kevin Millar as he worked to keehis teammates loose during their postseason run to the World Series.
Down three games to none to the hated New York Yankees in the American League ChampionshiSeries, Millar told anyone who would listen as he warmed uinside Fenway Park for Game 4, “Don’t let us win tonight. This is a big game. They’ve got to win, because if we win, we’ve got Petie (Pedro Martinez) coming back today and then (Curt) Schilling will pitch Game 6 and then you can take that fraud stuff and put it to bed. Don’t let the Sox win this game.”
Millar’s words became prophetic as the Red Sox rallied in 12 innings to win Game 4, rallied again to win Game 5, controlled Game 6 and then dominated Game 7 to cathe biggest comeback in Major League Baseball playoff history.
Now another self-described “idiot” is at it again in New England. Stewart – the “idiot” who waited to win a race until the Chase began and when asked who the Chase favorites were prior to Chicagoland did not include himself – is now heading to another one of his best tracks.
New Hampshire is home to two of Stewart’s Sprint Cups wins (July 2000 and July 2005), as well as a NASCAR Nationwide Series win (2008) and an IZOD IndyCar Series victory (1998). And when he’s not winning in Sprint Cuat the 1.058-mile oval, he’s at least knocking on the door, as he also has a pole, nine top-threes, 13-top-fives, 15 top-10s and has led a total of 1,178 laps – second only to Jeff Gordon’s total of 1,226 laps led at New Hampshire, but accomplished in eight fewer starts than Gordon.
Need some more statistics? In the last 13 Sprint Curaces at New Hampshire, Stewart has…
The best driver rating (114.0)
The most fastest-laps run (381)
The most laps led(847 laps or 21.9 percent)
… and is…
The fastest driver early in a run, with an average speed of 125.419 mph
The fastest driver on restarts, with an average speed of 121.102 mph
The fastest driver in traffic, with an average speed of 123.864 mph
… and in the series’ last visit to New Hampshire in July, Stewart qualified second to his teammate, Ryan Newman, and then finished second to him in the race, giving SHR a 1-2 start and finish in the same race, something that hadn’t been done since Hendrick Motorsports started 1-2 and finished 1-2 in the 1989 Daytona 500. Making the moment even more memorable, however, was that SHR’s performance was the first time a team started 1-2 and finished 1-2 with the same drivers in the same order since DePaolo Engineering did it on April 7, 1957 at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. There, Fireball Roberts won from the pole, while teammate Paul Goldsmith started second and finished second. (In Hendrick’s instance, Darrell Waltriwon, but started second. Ken Schrader started from the pole and finished second.)
Bolstered by all those numbers and his team’s performance at New Hampshire just two months ago, Stewart is ready to adopt another memorable line of Millar’s as he “Cowboys Up” for his playoff run.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What are some of the things you learned from being in the Chase in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 that you’re applying this year?
“My approach to the Chase is the same way it’s been any other time I’ve been in a point race – you go out there, you lead laps, you try to win races and the points take care of itself. If we don’t win, then we try to get second. If we can’t get second, then we try to get third. The higher you finish, the more points you get. It’s a pretty simple theory. You just go out and finish as high as you can each week and let the points fall where they may. I know that sounds like a simple formula, but the reason we got to this point is by following that theory. Every week we go out and we try to lead laps and we try to win races. That’s what got us here. There’s no reason to change that. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel.”
Are you seeing more aggressive driving in this year’s Chase?
“Well, you still have 43 drivers who want to win races. The guys who are outside of that top-12, they still have sponsors to impress, programs to get on track, and for some, jobs to earn. Other guys just have something to prove. Guys aren’t going to be content to just sit there and ride the rest of the season out. They’re going to want to prove to everybody that they belong in this series. But I don’t think there’s more or less aggressiveness on the racetrack. It’s always been aggressive.”
Explain a laaround New Hampshire.
“It’s a big motor deal. With the corners being so tight, you’ve got to put a lot of gear in the car to get it uoff the corner. Forward bite is always an issue there too, so it’s hard to get uoff the corners. Then you’ve got long straightaways where you can kind of relax a little bit. Coming into the corners, you use a lot of brake, and it’s hard to not only get the car stopped, but to get it to turn. Then you go through that challenge all over again.”
Is New Hampshire a good place to race?
“Obviously, I like it because I’ve had success there. But at the same time, it’s a tough track to pass on. You can be a couple of tenths faster than a guy, but it still takes you 20 laps to get by him. There are other tracks on the circuit where it’s hard to pass, but we still go out and put on good shows there, too. Every race at Loudon seems to be a pretty good race. So, I like it. I enjoy racing there even though it is hard to pass. But when you’ve got a good car, it’s always fun to race.”
While you’ve won at New Hampshire, you’ve also had races where you’ve struggled. How can one race weekend turn out great and another turn into one you’d rather forget?
“If you miss on something, it can be a miserable day. It seems like you don’t see but three or four guys during the day that really hit it. That’s what makes a day there miserable when you miss. It’s just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day. And it seems like you can have bad track position, but if you have a car that drives well, you can drive your way to the front.”
Because New Hampshire is a difficult racetrack, are some drivers beat before they even make a practice labecause they have a negative outlook about the racetrack?
“It certainly doesn’t help if someone has a bad attitude going in there. It kind of puts a strike against you, but I’m not going to say that you’re already beat. There are tracks that I’ve been to that weren’t my favorite tracks, but I still found a way to win there. You’ve just got to stay focused and work hard to find what it takes to be good.”
You endured a tough day at New Hampshire last September when you had the car to beat only to lose the race on the last laof the last turn when you ran out of fuel and Clint Bowyer, who had pretty much resigned himself to finishing second, won. How tough was that loss?
“I wasn’t happy, that’s for sure, but we went down swinging. It’s hard to lose one that way, but at the same time, it was fun racing Clint like that. He did a good job of saving fuel and I didn’t do a good job. It was a tough way to start the Chase, that’s for sure. I would’ve settled for second. If you know exactly how much gas you have, it would be different, but you never know. It’s part of the sport, always has been. It’s what makes it exciting when you never know until the last lawhat’s going to happen.”
TONY STEWART’S NEW HAMPSHIRE PERFORMANCE PROFILE
Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Laps Led Earnings
2011 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 2 2 Running, 301/301 48 $210,633
2010 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 25 2 Running, 301/301 2 $206,598
Sylvania 300 3 24 Running, 300/300 100 $119,848
2009 *†Lenox Industrial Tools 301 1 5 Running, 273/273 40 $134,548
Sylvania 300 2 14 Running, 300/300 52 $100,973
2008 *Lenox Industrial Tools 301 28 13 Running, 284/284 132 $132,211
†Sylvania 300 8 8 Running, 300/300 1 $131,561
2007 Lenox Industrial Tools 300 14 12 Running, 300/300 0 $126,136
Sylvania 300 6 3 Running, 300/300 39 $173,186
2006 ×Lenox Industrial Tools 300 5 37 Running, 285/308 28 $121,636
Sylvania 300 32 2 Running, 300/300 0 $220,686
2005 New England 300 13 1 Running, 300/300 232 $283,986
Sylvania 300 1 2 Running, 300/300 173 $233,636
2004 Siemens 300 9 5 Running, 300/300 0 $126,178
†Sylvania 300 4 39 Accident, 83/300 16 $104,813
2003 New England 300 8 22 Running, 300/300 0 $104,528
Sylvania 300 32 20 Running, 299/300 0 $107,278
2002 New England 300 12 39 Accident, 121/300 1 $89,803
*New Hampshire 300 10 3 Running, 207/207 0 $138,328
2001 New England 300 25 5 Running, 300/300 0 $77,800
†New Hampshire 300 5 5 Running, 300/300 0 $83,300
2000 *New England 300 6 1 Running, 273/273 156 $164,800
Dura Lube/Kmart 300 16 23 Running, 297/300 0 $57,600
1999 Jiffy Lube 300 10 10 Running, 300/300 118 $55,715
Dura Lube/Kmart 300 5 2 Running, 300/300 40 $114,790
* Race cut short due to weather.
† Qualifying canceled due to weather, starting position set via car owner points.
× Race length extended due to green-white-checker finish.