Tony Stewart: A Wildcat in Boomtown
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (April 9, 2013) – In 22 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Tony Stewart has scored a pole, two wins, six top-fives, 12 top-10s and led 727 laps. The 1.5-mile oval has been a stout venue for Stewart, who first ran at the Texas track in 1997 as a member of the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Just as roughnecks have come to Texas searching for black gold, Stewart enters the Lone Star State searching for a strong run after a rough start. Six races into the 36-race season – and 20 races away from the cutoff for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup – Stewart is 22nd in points with only one top-10 finish.
Missed opportunities have dogged Stewart. Just 34 laps into the season-opening Daytona 500, Stewart was collected in a multi-car crash and finished 41st. After posting solid results of eighth and 11th in the series’ next two races at Phoenix and Las Vegas, respectively, a flat left-rear tire only nine laps into the 500-lap race at Bristol (Tenn.) sent Stewart into the wall and relegated him to a 31st-place finish. A rebound appeared in the cards in Round No. 5 at Fontana (Calif.), but after starting third for a restart with only 10 laps to go, Stewart was blocked by another competitor, lost momentum and finished 22nd. And in his most recent race at Martinsville (Va.), Stewart had a top-10 in hand before being caught in the slower, outside lane following a restart with less than 30 laps remaining. He wound up 17th.
Like a wildcatter drilling for oil, Stewart and Co. just want one hit. If they get that one solid finish, more will come. Stewart knows this well. For reasons unexplained, he’s streaky. Want proof? Eighteen of Stewart’s 47 career Sprint Cup victories have come back-to-back. The most recent instance came in 2011 with successive wins Oct. 30 at Martinsville and Nov. 6 at Texas. Those victories were a microcosm of Stewart’s 2011 season, as he was winless until the Chase, where in the span of 10 races, he won five times to secure his third Sprint Cup championship.
The knowledge that comes from that kind of experience, as well as the cumulative effect of competing in NASCAR’s elite series for 15 years, allows Stewart to persevere.
The beauty of a 36-race season is that there is seemingly endless opportunity to turn the tide, especially when that 36-race season is only six races old. It bodes well for Stewart that Texas is his next opportunity to begin his march toward the top-10 and resume his typical perch among the Chase combatants, because beyond his NASCAR success at Texas, Stewart has proven successful in other racing series that have visited the Great American Speedway.
Stewart has made three IZOD IndyCar Series starts at Texas. He started on the pole twice (June 1997 and 1998) and second once (September 1998). While Stewart never finished an IndyCar Series race at Texas (he suffered engine failures in June 1997 and September 1998 and mechanical troubles in June 1998), he still led 208 of a possible 624 laps (33.4 percent).
And prior to Stewart’s first Sprint Cup win at Texas, he scored a victory in the International Race of Champions (IROC). In April 2006, Stewart won round two of IROC XXX at Texas. He followed that win with a victory on the road course at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. And with a third-place finish in the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stewart secured his first IROC championship – the last in the 30-year history of IROC.
With Mobil 1 pulsing through his Chevrolet SS, and some might say though his veins, Stewart is intent on making the most of his time in Texas.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Texas is a track where you have been consistently good. What makes you so comfortable there?
“You have to be comfortable or you’re not going to go fast. The more comfortable I am, the faster we go. This track, the grooves have moved around over the years. We’ve seen the track get wider and it’s made it to where you can move around on the racetrack and where you can run the top side or the bottom side. It’s nice from a driver’s perspective to be able to have that flexibility behind the steering wheel, knowing that if your car’s not driving exactly the way you want it to, you can move around the racetrack and find a spot the car likes better.”
You’ve logged a lot of laps at Texas. How has the track developed since those early years?
“Any time you put more seasons on a racetrack, the better it gets because it seems like the pavement wears out on the bottom and it makes it to where you can run the top and be fast and you can run the bottom and be fast. It makes the whole racetrack, speed-wise, about the same, versus when they pave a racetrack and the only groove is right on the bottom. The fastest way is the shortest way because it all has the same amount of grip, so the shorter distance is faster. Just like Mobil 1 technology creates efficiency with our engine, transmission, even our power steering, we find efficiency with the line we run. Every year we come here, I think the racing just gets better and better, as far as being able to move around on the racetrack and guys not having to just follow each other and get stuck behind each other. You can actually pass. You can race. You can get away from guys if your car’s fast.”
In your last 14 races at Texas, you’ve earned a top-five rating in several loop data statistics including driver rating, average running position, fastest laps run, laps led and laps in the top-15, to name a few. How have you been able to adapt to Texas’ layout?
“I’ve found that you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy who misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn’t make a mistake and you’ve got a little better car than they do, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track’s a little wider, so you have more room to get a run on a guy. But, as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car’s handling will become more important. And, when a guy makes a mistake, you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up.”
A lot of drivers talk about turn two at Texas, where it feels like the banking falls out from underneath them. Can you describe that sensation?
“It does. The entry and exit of these corners, they’re very abrupt as far as the banking. When you turn in the corner, it’s very abrupt getting in and falls off very quickly. The reason for that, when they built Texas Motor Speedway, they intended to have the Indy cars race on the apron. That’s why the apron is so wide at Texas. The Indy cars were not originally meant to run on the banking. That’s why the banking on the entry of the corner and exit falls off so fast, so the cars could come from the straightaway from the apron and back up with a smooth transition from the bottom. It makes it a different challenge than what we have at Charlotte or Atlanta because of that. It does make it a lot more challenging to get your car set up for it. You can’t relax on the entry and you can’t relax on the exit of the corner. A lot of times, it’s hard to get your car secure on the entry because you don’t have that banking to hold it. Once you get in the corner, it seems like it’s all right. Same thing happens on the exit. Turn two is the tighter of the two exits of the racetrack. You’re still trying to finish the corner there and you have to keep tugging on the steering wheel and, at the same time, make sure you don’t lose the back (of the car). It definitely falls out from under you. When it does, you have to make sure your car is tight enough to make it through that transition.”
Texas marks the first night race for the sixth-generation (Gen-6) car. Where is the Gen-6 car as far as development?
“I don’t know where everyone wants it to be. That’s the biggest thing. It still boils down to the fact that it’s a racecar and I think there’s way too much pressure as far as expectations of what it’s supposed to be. Nobody has told me where it’s actually supposed to be. It’s a car, and this is a car that doesn’t come with an instruction manual. It’s a constant work in progress. We’re all going to get smarter about the cars. As drivers, we’re going to learn things about what we can and can’t do and what scenarios to put ourselves in. Now that NASCAR has given us the rules, what the templates are going to be, Goodyear can now go and make adjustments. Everyone is going to do their part, but I think what’s been understated is how good this car has been right out of the box. It’s a nice car. It’s a well-balanced car. It may not be exactly where everyone thinks it’s supposed to be. Apparently there are people that are not content with where it’s at, but for the few races we’ve had, I think it’s been an overwhelming success. Coming out of the box, a new racecar doesn’t normally happen this flawlessly.”