Posted: 06 Oct 2011 07:54 PM PDT
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – ABC’s Wide World of Sports spanned the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, but for the part about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, you need only to watch Tony Stewart race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.
Stewart has two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories at the 1.5-mile oval, the most recent of which came in 2009. But sandwiched between that win and his first Sunflower State triumph in 2006 where he successfully gambled on fuel mileage, Stewart played the role of Vinko Bogataj – the ski jumper whose spectacular crash on March 21, 1970 was featured on Wide World of Sports from the early 1970s onward as the late Jim McKay uttered, “…and the agony of defeat”.
That’s because Stewart’s victory at Kansas in 2009 should’ve been the third Kansas win for the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala, as the defeat Stewart endured at Kansas in 2007 was indeed agony.
Stewart was in the lead when a downpour forced NASCAR officials to wave the red flag and halt the event. With heavy rains, along with thunder and lightning, pelting the track well past the halfway point of the race, Stewart appeared to have his 33rd career Sprint Cup victory and his fourth win of 2007 locked up.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion had come from his 19th-place starting position to lead three times for 13 laps, and appeared ready to log his first win in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup and take a substantial lead in the championship standings. But after an almost two-and-a-half hour effort to dry the track, the race was restarted and what Stewart once thought was his was now fair game for the race’s other contenders.
Before the restart, Stewart pitted for tires and fuel and held onto the lead as other drivers followed his strategy. But when a multi-car accident on lap 157 stacked up cars off turn two, Stewart had to get on the brakes hard to avoid getting collected in the crash. Stewart was able to dive low to escape most of the carnage, but not without some damage to the left-front corner of his racecar. As the field rode around under caution, the damage appeared cosmetic, and with track position at a premium, Stewart stayed on the racetrack. But once the race went back to green and Stewart returned to speed, the damage to the left-front fender proved troublesome, as the crinkled fender rubbed against the tire each time Stewart dove into the corners.
On lap 175, the tire deflated, and while Stewart waved to the drivers behind him that he was slowing, it wasn’t enough. Kurt Busch came upon Stewart quickly and wasn’t able to maneuver away from him. The bumper of Busch’s Dodge made contact with the rear of Stewart’s car, sending Stewart sideways into the SAFER Barrier on the outside retaining wall. Stewart’s battered racecar then slid down the apron and into the path of fellow Chase driver Carl Edwards.
Stewart was unhurt, but the car was done for the day with heavy rear-end damage. The accident and resulting 39th-place finish also impacted Stewart’s standing in the Chase. He dropped two spots to fourth and 117 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson. Johnson would go on to win the second of his five straight championships while Stewart finished the year sixth in points.
It’s that juxtaposition that makes Kansas such an interesting venue, and why Stewart – a man with two wins, five top-fives, eight top-10s and a lap completion rate of 98.5 percent in 11 career Sprint Cup starts at Kansas – makes for such an interesting competitor when the series returns to Kansas this weekend for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, round No. 4 of the 10-race Chase.
Winless during the 26-race regular season, Stewart ripped off back-to-back wins to start this year’s Chase, which put him atop the championship standings. The first of those two wins came at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., the sister track to Kansas. It’s a victory that bodes well for Stewart in his return to Kansas this weekend, as the two tracks are as close as two tracks can be. Both are 1.5-mile, D-shaped ovals and both came on the Sprint Cup scene in 2001.
Stewart has won and lost at both venues, which means his tendency to find victory lane after 10 years of competing at each track is refined. The Chicagoland win is proof of that, as is Stewart leading twice for 20 laps in his June visit to Kansas where a win was in sight before he was undone by a thirsty fuel cell.
Already having endured the agony of defeat at Kansas – this past June and most memorably in 2007 – Stewart is again ready for the thrill of victory.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Kansas and its sister track in Chicagoland look exactly alike. Are they?
“They’re about as close as you can get to being the same. You aren’t going to find any two tracks that are more identical than Kansas and Chicago. The only difference between the two tracks – the backstretch at Chicago is a little bit rounded while Kansas’ is straight. I call them sister tracks because with the exception of the bow in the backstretch at Chicagoland, they’re identical racetracks. Both of them, it seems like the last couple years in particular, have come around. They’ve seasoned, and it’s gotten to where we finally got off the bottom and move around the racetrack more. That’s what you want as a driver. That’s what teams want. You don’t want to be stuck following guys and not being able to move around and pass. It just makes you confident that at least you’ve got options when you go in the corner. You can go and help yourself out as a driver, kind of like what we talk about at Michigan about being able to move around on the track. It makes the place a lot more fun when you’re able to move around. The first couple of times that we went there, we all dreaded it because it was just single-file racing. Now, you have the ability to move around on the racetrack more.”
Your win three races ago at Chicagoland came in a fuel mileage race. Can you explain what you did to make sure you had enough fuel to go the distance while many of your competitors did not?
“I’ve lost a lot more races like that than I’ve won. To be in a situation where your speed is dictated off the guy behind you and not off of what you can do, it’s a different style of racing. It’s hard. It’s just as hard, if not tougher, than trying to run 100 percent.”
The first of your two Kansas wins came in 2006, and it came in a fuel mileage race. How’d you do it?
“It was a battle between the driver and the crew chief. The crew chief is yelling at you every lap to save fuel, but you’re not slowing down enough and he knows it because he’s looking at the stopwatch.
“When you’ve got guys behind you, you know you don’t want to give those spots up in case they happen to make it on fuel. So, I tried to save as much fuel as I could and still hold guys off.
“We were able to take the chance because we had nothing to lose. Not being in the Chase that year gave us that opportunity to take the chance and go ahead and run for it.”
When you took the checkered flag you were out of gas. What were your thoughts inside the car when you knew you had run out?
“When we were coming down the backstretch, I asked how many laps we had left and they said, ‘You’re coming to the white (flag).’ Then I saw the needle start bouncing and it wasn’t on zero, but it was down to three pounds and bouncing up and down. We came down the frontstretch and it started losing pressure when we went into turn one. Then it caught up for a second, but as soon as we came off turn two, it lost pressure immediately. It’s just important to get it kicked out of gear right away and just get down low on the racetrack and take the shortest distance around. We just coasted around and hoped we had enough of a lead to stay out front. Turned out we did.”
Your second Kansas win came in 2009. How decisive was the call by your crew chief, Darian Grubb, to take two tires instead of four on your final pit stop to win that race?
“Darian made a great call getting two (tires), and the guys had an awesome stop. That was really what it boiled down to. We got that track position at the end, and we had the luxury of being able to pick the inside or outside lane on the restart, and I kind of debated back-and-forth which side I needed to be on. But I kind of struggled when I was stuck on the bottom on restarts. So, I took a gamble and went to the top and got enough of a lead on Kasey (Kahne) to get down to the bottom that by the time we got to (turns) one and two, I was able to run my line. We got enough of a gap right off the bat that it gave me the flexibility to run my own line, run my own pace and let those guys have to worry about catching us.”
But Jeff Gordon was catching you toward the end of the race. How did you hold him off?
“We just kind of ran our pace. When somebody starts running you down, it’s easy to over-drive your car trying to maintain a gap, and you end up making it worse on yourself. So even though I saw Jeff getting bigger in the mirror, I didn’t want to burn the tires off in case we got a caution and we got a green-white-checkered, so we just ran hard enough to not abuse the tires. It’s like he could get so close and then he couldn’t get any closer. When he got up there, he got tight, and he had to run pretty hard to get by Greg Biffle, and then to run us down. By then, he pretty much got the good off his tires and we got the luxury to kind of, on that restart, run our own pace and take care of it and make sure we made it last the whole way.”
You seemingly had the race won at Kansas back in 2007, only to see it turn 180 degrees and end up with a 39th-place finish.
“That was just circumstances. We were able to win a fuel mileage race there where we really weren’t in a position to win, but because of our situation in the point standings, we were able to gamble and go for it. Somebody else that day lost a race they should’ve won, and that year may have been one of those for us. But it all comes out in the wash and it all averages out eventually.”
Is what happened to you in 2007 at Kansas a prime example of how fickle this sport can be?
“There are guys out there on different agendas, especially with the Chase format. There are guys each week that have a different agenda of what they’re trying to accomplish with that day’s race. There are guys that have the opportunity to take chances and there are guys who don’t have the opportunity to take chances. With that, it creates a lot of different scenarios at the end of the day. We took a chance that year. The scenario we had projected for ourselves just didn’t work out.”
TONY STEWART’S KANSAS PERFORMANCE PROFILE
Price Chopper 400
Price Chopper 400
Camping World RV 400
Protection One 400
Protection One 400
* Race cut short due to weather.