TONY STEWART Heluva Good! Start Has Stewart Halfway Home to Chase Berth KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 27, 2009) -- While last weekend's rain-induced marathon of a race at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., had some feeling as if the entire...
Heluva Good! Start Has Stewart Halfway Home to Chase Berth
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 27, 2009) -- While last weekend's rain-induced marathon of a race at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., had some feeling as if the entire 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season had lapsed, only 12 of the 36 races on the Sprint Cup schedule have actually been completed.
Dover (Del.) International Speedway is next up for those competing in NASCAR's elite division, with the Autism Speaks 400 presented by Heluva Good! serving as round 13 on the marathon-like Sprint Cup schedule. But while 36 seems pretty far away from 13, it comes with the same warning etched into the side-view mirrors of most passenger cars: "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear." That's because Dover serves as the halfway point before the cutoff for the final, 10-race Chase for the Championship begins. And when it does, only the top-12 drivers in points will be eligible to vie for title of "2009 Sprint Cup Champion."
Firmly ensconced in second-place in the championship standings -- only 44 points behind series leader and four-time champion Jeff Gordon, 115 points ahead of third-place Kurt Busch and a stout 256 points ahead of 13th-place David Reutimann -- Tony Stewart is well on his way toward pursuing a third Sprint Cup title.
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing won his first championship in 2002 under the old, Chase-less formula. He won his second championship in 2005 in the second year of the Chase when only the top-10 drivers in points were eligible.
Both titles came when Stewart was simply a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. But after 10 years of answering to the man most called "Coach," Stewart decided to answer to himself beginning in 2009 by becoming a driver/owner. Stewart-Haas Racing, which Stewart co-owns with Oxnard, Calif.-based Haas Automation -- the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world -- has burst out of the gate.
Stewart's second-place point standing is due to five top-fives and eight top-10s. Making Stewart's new endeavor even more impressive is that his teammate, Ryan Newman, is seventh in points thanks to four straight top-fives and two other top-10s.
It's a potent one-two punch that now comes to Dover.
The Monster Mile, as it's aptly known, is a brutal track. Its corners are banked at a staggering 24 degrees and its teeth-chattering concrete seams have made it monster-like for its ability to chew up and spit out even the most talented racecar drivers.
Stewart knows. In his first 12 career Sprint Cup races at Dover, he scored two wins, five top-threes, nine top-fives and had only one finish outside the top-10, which was an 11th-place run in June 2002. Oh, and he led a total of 1,066 of the 4,800 laps available (22.2 percent).
But since those halcyon days of yore, when Dover's dusty confines from the horse track it houses within its infield provided the perfect backdrop for when Stewart dusted the field, the two-time champ has finished outside the top-10 in seven of his last eight races. And in his last nine starts at Dover, Stewart hasn't led a lap.
Never in Stewart's 10 previous years of Sprint Cup competition has he been this high in points 12 races into the season. And he's doing it when conventional wisdom says he shouldn't, as he's driving for a new team in a new role with a new car overseen by a new crew chief.
Seemingly surrounded by newness, Stewart's stalwart competitiveness remains as strong as ever. The same zeal Stewart brought with him to Sprint Cup as a rookie in 1999 is back, but now it's laced with wisdom thanks to 33 career victories and the aforementioned two championships.
Two of those 33 wins came at Dover when Stewart swept the track's two races in 2000. Now back for his 21st career Sprint Cup start at the Monster Mile, the newly minted 38-year-old is ready to show that what's old is new again by continuing his strong start to the 2009 season.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
With all this success, how good does it feel to be a driver/owner?
"It's awesome. It was supposed to be so stressful to do this, especially this year with the economy being what it is. It was supposed to add stress. It has actually taken stress away. I don't understand why. I don't really have a good answer for it. Every day when I wake up, I look forward to going to the shop. I look forward to going to the track. I'm having fun. I haven't had this much fun for a long time. I loved where I was at, I loved the group of people I was with, but I guess this is a situation that you see with pro athletes all the time. Sometimes you just need a change, and this was a change that apparently I needed and didn't realize."
You started this season strong, and have gotten progressively stronger after only 12 races. Top-10 finishes turned into top-five finishes, which turned into a win in the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race May 16 at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C. Knowing that you're capable of winning as a driver/owner, and being second in the championship point standings, have your expectations changed from what they were before the season started?
"Honestly, the thing that is important in this series is just being able to run consistently in the top-five. That's where we want to be every week. You know on a particular night when the scenario is working out right that eventually, if you're running up front, you're going to get that win. You don't feel like you have to push and try to make something happen, because you know if you're running that consistently in the top-five, it's going to happen. It's just a matter of when. We got consistent, Ryan (Newman) is getting consistent and we know that's what it's going to take to win a championship. To us it was more important to run consistently in the top-five each week than it was to try to worry about when that first win was going to happen. Really, our mindset isn't changed. We're doing the things we need to be doing now. I feel like we're doing things right. We're consistently running in the top-five. We got that first win out of the way. We have to stay consistent and do what we're doing right now. We're right on pace."
Is winning any different when you're a driver and an owner?
"Does it matter? As long as you're enjoying it, you're enjoying it. The one part that was a little different than it had ever been when we won the All-Star Race was afterward all I cared about was getting back and seeing my guys. I didn't really even realize it until after we finished third in the Shootout at Daytona in February. It was the first event we ran and couple of the guys came up and were high-fiving each other and said, 'Hey, that is the best finish we've ever had." It was like, you guys have never run in the top-three in a Cup race... ever? That was what was so exciting about the All-Star Race -- knowing that there is a group of guys in this organization that have been there from day one, guys on my team, guys on Ryan's team, that had never been to victory lane. That, from a driver and owner standpoint, is just cool, that you were part of getting them their first win and being there to celebrate with them."
Did you think you could compete for a championship in your first year as a driver/owner?
"I'm not sure that I thought we could win a championship the first year. It's like we said a million times -- you look at everything on paper, you look at the resources, you look at the equipment that we have, the shop that we have, all the pieces of the puzzle -- it makes sense that yes, you have a shot just like everybody else does. But you get to the track and see the guys you are up against and the competition we are racing against, there are no slouches. I mean, there haven't been any slouches in this series for a long, long time. There have always been car owners that have been on top of their games. As the sport has evolved and times and technologies have changed, these car owners have evolved with it. You don't become successful by not adapting to that. We have a long way to go. We are up against some tough competition. When you have two cars in the top-10 in points and you have a day where you go out there and beat them, you may not be the super team necessarily, but you have a shot. The great part is we are aligned with a super team and that gives us the opportunity to have the success we are having. We keep working well with Hendrick Motorsports, and their engine department and chassis department are a critical part of how we've been able to do what we've been able to do so far."
Dover's surface is concrete. Do you have to alter your driving style when you race on concrete?
"I don't think you drive it any differently. But because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would. There are seams in Dover's surface and places where they've cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that's constantly changing. But it's one of those places where you really can't change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It's just a matter of finding the package that's right for that race track. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track -- either the car is going to be tight or it's going to be loose."
Is Dover the type of racetrack where a driver can make up for a racecar that isn't handling well?
"To a certain extent, yes. With the way the cars slide around on the racetrack late in the day, there are times when a driver can make up for what the car won't do. They can move around on the racetrack and help themselves out by finding a faster groove."
After you're done competing at Dover, you'll put on your track promoter hat and get ready to host the fifth annual Prelude to the Dream Wednesday, June 3 at your racetrack -- Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. Talk about that.
"It's a lot of fun. The biggest part of the gratification for me is just seeing the guys that come up there and how much fun they have driving these dirt late models on a night where we get to race with guys we're typically racing with every week. But we get to do something a little different, and that takes the edge off I think."
Why should someone order the fifth annual Prelude to the Dream and watch it on HBO Pay-Per-View?
"The Prelude to the Dream is a race that we hold prior to 'Dream Weekend,' which is one of our biggest weekends at Eldora Speedway. Professional dirt late model racers from across the country are racing for $100,000 to win. The Prelude to the Dream is on the Wednesday before, and it's a race that myself and 25 drivers from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NHRA compete in for bragging rights, but also to raise money for charity. It's a fun atmosphere for the drivers, crews, fans and the people watching at home on HBO Pay-Per-View. Most of these guys don't race on dirt very often, so it's a chance for a lot of us to go back to our roots and have a great time. The viewers at home get to see us much differently than they would on a normal race weekend. There are no points, no pressure, just a lot of fun. This year, we're helping out injured and fallen soldiers by raising money from the Prelude to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project, Intrepid Heroes Fund, Operation Homefront and Fisher House. The men and women in our armed forces fight for our freedom to make sure we can continue to have fun at events like the Prelude, and everyone who tunes in and buys the event on HBO Pay-Per-View will be helping our troops all over the world."
How gratifying is it for you to see all the drivers come together to help you with such a great cause?
"That's the best part of it. To me, that's the biggest compliment -- that they are willing to take a day out of their schedule. You know, our schedules get more and more hectic every year. So, to get a full day on your schedule, that's taking away a lot. And, for these guys to all do this once a year and come to our facility and race at a place I'm very passionate about is something that is very humbling, but at the same time, it shows their passion and compassion for charities and the fact that they work very hard to give back to communities."
Why is racing on dirt so much fun for you guys?
"I think what's fun, or challenging, about dirt is that the surface is never the same. When we go to Charlotte or Daytona or Talladega, the conditions are pretty much the same every time, as far as the surface goes. Dirt tracks are always different from the last time you were there. So, for the guys who are preparing the cars and doing the setups on them, they kind of have to guess ahead and try to plan for what they think the track is going to do. The drivers have to plan accordingly, too, and they have to make adjustments while they're out on the track because the conditions are constantly changing. That's what's so fun about dirt -- it's never the same twice."
How unique is it for 26 of the top drivers in the country to race at a half-mile dirt track in the middle of Ohio cornfields?
"It's unreal. I guess it would be like Tiger Woods taking all of his buddies and going to play the local putt-putt course, or Michael Jordan taking all of his friends to the playground and shooting hoops. These guys all converge on this track and it's fun, and it gets us back to our roots -- why we got into racing to begin with. There are no points, no prize money. Guys pay their own way to get there and it's for a worthwhile cause -- the injured and fallen soldiers and their families."
When you guys go to Eldora, the routine is totally different from a normal race weekend. Is that part of the challenge, or the fun for you guys -- getting adjusted to the dirt and getting away from your normal routine?
"Yeah, I think if we could get an hour of practice like we do at a (Sprint) Cup race, most of these guys would really pick this up really quick -- and they do anyway. But they have to do it in probably a total of 10 to 12 laps, and that's something they're not used to having to do. I mean, they're used to being able to have a lot of practice time, where on dirt tracks, you just can't spend that much track time without it affecting the racetrack. So, where you used to have two warm-up sessions for the race at a Cup event, now, all of a sudden, you get two five- or six-lap sessions to get ready to go qualify right away, and that's not a lot of time for a professional driver to try to figure out a different racecar and a different racetrack and surface."