Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Tony Stewart has been sharp as a pistol in the first three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the 2011 season. After all, he’s led 222 laps, which is 80 laps more than anyone else. Yet even while the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing has been a bullet, he’s yet to reach his primary target – victory lane.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion 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’ most recent 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.
In each outcome, Stewart was stomping mad. Yet, the cumulative effect gave Stewart a share of the point lead with Kurt Busch. That silver lining was difficult for Stewart to grasp in the immediate aftermath of Las Vegas, but as time wore on – and there was plenty of time as an offweekend greeted competitors before the series’ next stop at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway – Stewart began to see that while the losses still hurt, his team’s overall performance was pretty stout, especially considering they came at three very different tracks – Daytona’s 2.5-mile mile oval that requires cars to carry a restrictor plate on its engines; Phoenix’s flat, 1-mile oval where handling is key; and Las Vegas’ sweeping, 1.5-mile oval that puts a premium on aerodynamics.
The lone style of oval still up for Stewart is a short track, but that box gets checked this weekend at Bristol with Sunday’s running of the Jeff Byrd 500.
The .533-mile bullring provides tight-and-fast racing that no other track delivers. As such, tempers run highest at Bristol, where little real estate on the track translates to little patience behind the wheel. And for a guy who feels like he should have three trophies already this season, patience may not be in abundance. But Stewart is a 13-year veteran of Sprint Cup with a pole, a win, four top-threes, six top-fives, eight top-10s and 1,354 laps led in 24 career Bristol starts. As such, he can contain himself when needed and unleash himself when necessary.
Still, being so close to victory so many times means that while Stewart’s competitors may be getting tired of seeing his bumper, they should prefer it to the alternative – the nose of Stewart’s Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy in their rearview mirror. If the past three races are any indication, it won’t be there for long, either by virtue of Stewart’s raw speed or his level of patience in getting to the front. For the man who’s been stomping mad at his near-misses, he won’t miss performing his own rendition of the Bristol Stomp in the Jeff Byrd 500.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ve had an incredibly strong start to the season, as you’re tied for the point lead with Kurt Busch. But by being so close to winning, yet not having won, make it hard to appreciate the start that you’ve had?
“It was pretty hard to appreciate after Las Vegas. That’s a race we should’ve won. Winning in Sprint Cup is hard enough as it is, and when you have a race like that and you’re not able to close the deal, especially at a track where you haven’t won yet, that’s hard. I wasn’t really in any mood to appreciate it right after the race, or even when I was in the media center talking about it. But on the flight home, and then Tuesday at the shop when I saw all the guys and we had our competition meeting, the anger went away and I was able to see what we’ve been able to do so far this year. We haven’t won any battles yet, but we’re winning the war, so far anyway. To be mad about a second-place finish – that’s a good problem to have. Everybody is working really hard. To have a legitimate shot to win each race so far this season is proof of that. No one on our team wanted to see this offweekend. We’ve been so good and so close – we didn’t want a break. But we got one anyway, and now Bristol is our next opportunity to get that win.”
Can you summarize your history at Bristol?
“Bristol is one of those places where you’ve got to have everything kind of go your way. If you have one hiccup, it’s hard to recover from it. We’ve only won one race there and we’ve kind of been all over the board. It’s been feast or famine for us. It’s like if you have one problem in the first half of the race, it’s hard to recover from it. It makes for a very long day. We’ve had more long days than good days.”
How miserable is it when you get several laps down at a track like Bristol?
“It’s a place where it’s hard to have a good day. There are so many variables that can go wrong at Bristol versus other tracks. If you have that one bad incident that gets you in the back, it’s hard to recover from that. There are guys who have done it and do a good job at it, but you have to have a great racecar to be able to recover from something bad, especially if you get laps down. It’s like going from the bottom of the mountain and climbing and climbing and not getting anywhere. You fight and fight and fight and at the end of the day you’re right where you were when you had your problem.”
How important is track position at a place like Bristol, where everything happens so quickly?
“It’s really important. What you’ve got to keep in mind is that every time the competition gets closer, it makes it harder and harder to start further back and pass cars. If you’re a half-second faster than the 20 cars in front of you, you’re probably going to be able to work your way through. If you’re half of a tenth of a second faster, it’s a lot harder to make up those spots. With the sport and the competition level going up every week, passing is harder. That’s why track position is so important. The thing about Bristol is that, at the end of the day, you still have to have a good-handling racecar. You can get good track position, but if you don’t have a good car, you’re not going to be able to hold onto it.”
On that note, how important is to have a good qualifying effort at Bristol?
“It’s no different than anywhere else because track position is important everywhere we go. Obviously, Bristol is action-packed and everybody gets in a hurry and there are a lot of cautions. So, it is a little more important this week than some of the other tracks we go to about qualifying because you want to get a good starting position, but more so a good pit spot. These boxes can be tricky during the race, and it’s easy to get stuck in your pit box and lose eight or 10 spots if you get boxed in. If you can get a good qualifying run and get a good pit selection, it helps you through the whole day. No matter whether your car is good or bad, you’re going to gain spots.”
Even though you have an up-and-down track record at Bristol, do you like racing there?
“Yeah, I love it. Ever since they repaved the place and added two true grooves, it’s made it racier. We have true side-by-side racing, now. Drivers can make their way through the pack without having to wreck each other while they’re doing it. Before, guys got wrecked who weren’t even involved in what was going on, a lot of times, because you’d go to get stopped and somebody behind you wouldn’t get slowed down enough, and you’d get picked up and turned around and your day was ruined. Now, you’ve got a lot more cars finishing the race. You’ve got a lot more cars finishing on the lead lap. And it’s more exciting because of that. The drivers can pass, now. It’s not just sit there and follow the leader and when you finally run out of patience, you nudge the guy out of the way. You still can do that, but at least you can nudge a guy without wrecking him. I think, from the competitor’s standpoint, we like that a lot more knowing that if somebody has to check up in front of you and you get into the back of him, you’re not necessarily going to wreck him because of it.”
You’re now in your 13th Sprint Cup season and you’re getting ready to make your 25th career Sprint Cup start at Bristol. You’ve seen a lot of racing there. What stands out?
“It’s a hard race to win. You look at guys like Rusty Wallace who have had so much success and won so many races there, it shows you how good you have to be to win and win there consistently. It only takes one minor incident to screw up your day. You would think being a short track race that if you have a great car you can get there, but normally one small mistake will take that opportunity away from you. Seems like you have better odds of something happening that keeps from you winning than you do of actually winning.”
Some of those “odds” have been some pretty spectacular last-lap scrapes where someone gets spun for the win. Are there any that you remember in particular?
“Watching Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte crash on the last couple of laps – a couple of those races have always stuck in my mind. They just prove you can have the fastest car there and still not win if one guy lays the bumper to you wrong.”
DARIAN GRUBB, Crew Chief for Stewart and the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Have you gotten over Las Vegas yet?
“Not really. It’s bad that we had a week off to sit here and keep thinking about it for a full two weeks instead of just getting back into the swing. That one hurt pretty badly because that’s a track Tony hadn’t won on. We wanted to do everything we could to get that win. I think we had the car to do it. We ended up just costing ourselves that win. That’s why it hurt so bad, we didn’t get outrun, we outdid ourselves.”
After Las Vegas, Tony said, “Second sucks,” but do you take solace in the fact that you’ve had a chance to win every race this year?
“We try to, but we all still feel that second sucks. It’s in everybody’s mind that races where you don’t win that you are the first loser. You never get rid of that mindset because, if you do, then that means you don’t have the passion to keep on doing this. We go to win every single week. We want to win practice, we want to sit on the pole, we want to lead every lap and we want to win the race. Anything less than that is not satisfactory. If we give up that attitude, we’re going to be falling behind. I applaud him and pat him on the back for that. In the heat of the moment when you get out of the racecar, you’re going to be mad, and I was too. But, when you get back and think about it this week and look at how good we ran and look at how we’re up there tied for the lead in points and all those things, it makes us feel good about what we’re doing and we just need to make sure we don’t fall back any. We’ve got to keep this level of work up and I think it’ll pay off in the end.”
Was this a good time to have an offweekend?
“We would say no. We’re running pretty well. We had our offtime during the offseason and we kind of overprepared and we want to go race. We’d like to have a full 36 straight weeks and run through this thing because we feel like we’re in good shape to do that. But it is good to kind of give the guys a break. We spend a lot of time in Daytona away from our families, and it’s getting to be a schedule now where you cherish those times when you can come home and actually just take a breather, spend some time with family, and go back and hit it hard again. Right now, though, we want to go race because we’ve had a couple of good strong weeks and we don’t want to lose that momentum.”
TONY STEWART’S BRISTOL PERFORMANCE PROFILE
Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Laps Led Earnings
2010 Food City 500 11 2 Running, 500/500 1 $161,323
Irwin Tools Night Race 4 27 Running, 494/500 1 $127,153
2009 ×Food City 500 15 17 Running, 502/503 0 $101,648
Sharpie 500 30 33 Running, 489/500 0 $101,718
2008 ×†Food City 500 6 14 Running, 506/506 267 $139,911
Sharpie 500 28 8 Running, 500/500 0 $152,261
2007 ×Food City 500 4 35 Running, 479/504 257 $133,911
Sharpie 500 23 4 Running, 500/500 0 $178,386
2006 †Food City 500 1 12 Running, 500/500 245 $168,886
Sharpie 500 5 22 Running, 498/500 0 $140,761
2005 Food City 500 11 3 Running, 500/500 0 $151,986
Sharpie 500 17 8 Running, 500/500 0 $146,086
2004 Food City 500 12 24 Running, 498/500 25 $115,518
Sharpie 500 6 19 Running, 497/500 0 $121,528
2003 Food City 500 10 26 Accident, 487/500 0 $111,518
Sharpie 500 18 23 Running, 494/500 0 $119,138
2002 ? Food City 500 13 15 Running, 500/500 74 $103,043
Sharpie 500 26 24 Running, 497/500 0 $103,788
2001 Food City 500 37 25 Running, 500/500 0 $64,820
Sharpie 500 18 1 Running, 500/500 71 $189,415
2000 Food City 500 19 42 Overheating, 73/500 0 $45,525
goracing.com 500 6 2 Running, 500/500 133 $92,540
1999 Food City 500 4 15 Running, 498/500 55 $48,505
Goody’s Headache Powder 500 1 5 Running, 500/500 225 $64,915
× Race length extended due to green-white-checker finish.
† Qualifying canceled due to weather, starting position set via car owner points.
? Race was finished by Todd Bodine, who took over for Stewart in a relief role on lap 367.