Posted: 23 Mar 2011 06:39 PM PDT
Tony Stewart Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Tony Stewart is finally in the club.
After going winless in 18 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Stewart finally pulled off a victory at the Southern California oval in the series’ most recent trip there last October. After leading three times for 27 laps – all in the last 51 tours around the track’s 2-mile layout – he became the 13th different Sprint Cup winner at Fontana when he captured his 39th career Sprint Cup victory.
Ten races have passed since that triumph, and Stewart is hungry for victory. And since he’s been close enough to taste victory three times in the season’s first four races, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing is downright ravenous.
Stewart was a contender throughout the season-opening Daytona 500, as he lined up second to race-winner Trevor Bayne on the race’s final restart, only to see the draft work against him and leave him a disappointing 13th. Stewart rebounded the very next weekend at Phoenix, as he led four times for 59 laps only to see an ill-timed caution late in the race thwart his strategy and drop him to a seventh-place finish. And in the series’ third race at Las Vegas, the cruelest hand was dealt to Stewart when he thoroughly dominated by leading four times for a race-high 163 laps. He opened up a four-second advantage until a pit road miscue derailed the perfect outing and left him second when the checkered flag dropped.
That Stewart ran so strongly at Las Vegas bodes well for his chances in Fontana. The two tracks are similarly shaped, and both demand plenty of horsepower beneath the hood of a racecar with aerodynamics that plant it to the track. And as Stewart and Co. displayed at Las Vegas, their car was speedy and slick.
With the knowledge gained from Las Vegas now applied to the car that carried Stewart to victory at Fontana last October, Stewart is ready to finally notch that first Sprint Cup win of 2011. Chassis No. 14-564 is the car which Stewart piloted to victory five months ago, and it’s the car Stewart will race again – albeit with a new body honed in the wind tunnel – in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Another Auto Club win would put Stewart in yet another club. Just as the Sports Business Journal has its annual Forty Under 40 list of award winners – an elite club of movers and shakers within the sports marketing industry – NASCAR has its version of 40 Under 40, and Stewart is eligible.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion turns 40 on May 20, and he’s just one win shy of hitting career win No. 40. If Stewart notches that victory between Fontana and the May 15 Sprint Cup race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, he’ll join active Sprint Cup drivers Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as drivers who notched 40 wins before they turned 40. It’s yet another reason for Stewart to do some more clubbin’ in SoCal.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Prior to your win last October, your best Fontana finish was fourth and you were typically a top-10 car at best. What changed?
“Fontana is so momentum driven, and when it’s as slick as it was back in October, it puts it back in the driver’s hands, and I think that’s always going to be to my advantage. But, you’re right, I’ve just been terrible there. We’ve had times when we’ve been good, but I’ve really struggled as a driver there over the course of 12 years.
“It’s just a very difficult place to get a hold of, and if you can get your car balanced, you really can drive away from the majority of the field and get a pretty big gap there. But, it’s hard to do. You have to have that balance perfect. Somebody is going to get it right. I mean, somebody gets it perfect every time we go there.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get to where you have an advantage over somebody and can be that much better. But I thought the racing last year was really good. The restarts early in the race were out of control. We were five-wide sometimes, and I know because I was one of them that put a bunch of guys five-wide early in the deal clear on the bottom, and I think we gained four spots in one corner doing it. But guys know how important these restarts are now, and they’re willing to take more chances. And at Fontana, the track is so wide, you can run so many different lines.
“The track is good and it’s racy, but man, it’s difficult. The seams are slick. The racetrack is slick. It’s not an old track, but it sure races like an old, worn-out track.”
This race used to be the Auto Club 500. Now it’s the Auto Club 400. What is your opinion on the race being 100 miles shorter?
“I’m happy with it. There are a lot of 500-mile races that in this age and era of sports where you’re fighting to keep the fans’ attention, a 400-mile race is going to be every bit as exciting, if not more, than a 500-mile race. So, it will give everybody a chance to get home a little bit earlier and I think it’s just better for everybody. You don’t have to have 500-mile races to put on good shows. We’ve run 300-laps at Loudon (N.H.), we’ve run 300-laps at Phoenix and they are always good races. None of these races are endurance races anymore, anyway. So 500-mile races going to 400 miles is a good thing.”
DARIAN GRUBB, Crew Chief for Stewart and the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
After winning in your most recent trip to Fontana, what’s your mindset as you head back to the site of your most recent win?
“We’re really looking forward to going back to California. We had a good weekend there last year. We struggled a little bit in practice, but we were able to make some good changes through our engineering program. We had a good race and we were able to put Tony in a position to go out there and earn that win at the end of the race. That was a lot of fun for us there, especially being close to Haas Automation’s headquarters in Oxnard, Calif. We had a lot of people in the stands for us.”
When you look at Fontana and what you’re going there with this year, how much can you take from last year?
“There’s definitely a few changes on the car, especially in aerodynamics with the new nose and things like that we’re trying to take into account. But, we feel really good about the way this season’s started. We’ve run really well at a superspeedway at Daytona, a short track at Phoenix and at the mile-and-a-half in Las Vegas. We had a really strong showing at all of those events, so we’re really looking forward to getting to California.”
Let’s talk about the new nose. Its first test was Phoenix and its next best test was Las Vegas. What did you learn about the new nose and what are its characteristics?
“It doesn’t really seem that it’s changed our handling characteristics that much. The aero balance is still fairly similar. It’s just more the sensitivity of the driver’s feel of the splitter hitting the track. The nose is much more rigid now than it was before. So, it’s a little harder for them to tell what’s going on when they’re hitting the track and whether the car’s getting tight because you’re hitting it too hard or if it’s just an aero balance thing and you’re not getting your ride heights and things correct.”
How different is the car with the new nose?
“It’s a complete overhaul based on what we had last year. Last year was an evolution through the season as things went on. We got our cars better and better and better. This year, with the new nose, we took another step toward that and spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel. I feel like we had a pretty good baseline going into this year. We’ve had three chances to win on a speedway, a one-mile and a mile-and-a-half, so we feel pretty good about our program right now.”
What does the Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy need to have at California to get another win?
“Overall, it’s just pure speed without being too loose off (the corner). We can always seem to get that balance of being able to turn in the center, but we get too loose off, especially off of turn four. If you give up too much off of turn four, you can’t carry that speed down the front straightaway and you’ll get eaten alive. You have to really be able to carry that momentum through the corner and off the corner and be able to carry it down those long straightaways, then let the horsepower and everything else take over. Aerodynamics is a big key there, so hopefully we’ll be able to take all those and put them together and pull off another win.”
This race is 400 miles as opposed to 500 miles. How does that factor into your preparation?
“It gives you a little bit less of a chance for error. You can’t go out there and fall back in the middle of the race and have a bad pit stop or something and be able to make up for it. You have to go out there and be strong all day and just keep it up front. Track position is going to be key, and it’s going to be a little harder to work from behind in a shorter race.”
TONY STEWART’S FONTANA PERFORMANCE PROFILE
Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Laps Led Earnings
2010 Auto Club 500 16 9 Running, 250/250 0 $138,398
Pepsi Max 400 22 1 Running, 200/200 27 $262,598
2009 Auto Club 500 11 8 Running, 250/250 3 $139,748
Pepsi 500 20 5 Running, 250/250 6 $143,248
2008 †Auto Club 500 6 7 Running, 250/250 0 $158,061
Pepsi 500 14 22 Running, 250/250 0 $137,936
2007 Auto Club 500 11 8 Running, 250/250 28 $148,161
Cal 500 22 13 Running, 250/250 12 $143,286
2006 ×Auto Club 500 12 43 Engine, 214/251 28 $131,453
California 500 22 9 Running, 250/250 0 $149,611
2005 Auto Club 500 29 17 Running, 250/250 0 $133,111
×California 500 14 5 Running, 254/254 56 $178,036
2004 Auto Club 500 11 16 Running, 249/250 0 $120,603
Pop Secret 500 33 18 Running, 250/250 0 $127,978
2003 Auto Club 500 3 41 Engine, 128/250 100 $117,708
2002 NAPA Auto Parts 500 8 29 Running, 247/250 0 $102,003
2001 NAPA Auto Parts 500 4 4 Running, 250/250 0 $107,072
2000 NAPA Auto Parts 500 32 10 Running, 250/250 0 $75,950
1999 †NAPA Auto Parts 500 7 4 Running, 250/250 1 $68,175
† Qualifying canceled due to weather, starting position set via car owner points.
× Race length extended due to green-white-checker finish.