Indianapolis: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART How Far We've Come KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 21, 2009) -- The tune "How Far We've Come" by Matchbox 20 was used by NASCAR to promote its 2008 marketing efforts, showcasing the sport's 60-year growth from its grassroots upbringing...

TONY STEWART
How Far We've Come

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 21, 2009) -- The tune "How Far We've Come" by Matchbox 20 was used by NASCAR to promote its 2008 marketing efforts, showcasing the sport's 60-year growth from its grassroots upbringing to its current mainstream appeal. The track is also an appropriate song for Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing.

One year ago in a press conference across the street from turns one and two of the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart took the wraps off his future by unveiling the No. 14 Chevrolet Impalas he would use to drive for his own team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series beginning in 2009. His fire engine red Chevys with co-sponsorship from Old Spice and Office Depot that bore the number of his hero, racing legend A.J. Foyt, would be the vehicles -- literally and figuratively -- that would take Stewart to a seemingly unfathomable level in NASCAR, that of a successful driver/owner. The event, which rivaled some past Formula One launches in terms of attendance and buzz, had a quiet undertone of, "Does Stewart really think he can pull this off?"

Just past the halfway mark of the 2009 Sprint Cup season and a full year removed from that day filled with both hope and anxiety, the overwhelming answer to that question is an emphatic, "Yes."

Already a two-time Sprint Cup champion, Stewart enters the 16th running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard as the series' leader in the championship point standings, and not by a smidge or even a respectable margin. His 175-point lead is akin to roughly the same amount of points that can be earned in a single Sprint Cup race. And Stewart has built it on the back of two wins and a series-leading 11 top-fives and 15 top-10s.

Look how far he's come, indeed. Now the notoriously summer-surging Stewart is back at a track where he has two Sprint Cup victories and is eyeing a third.

The Columbus, Ind.-native is a favorite son of Indiana, chalked up alongside such other homegrown talents as Larry Bird and David Letterman. The "local boy does good" angle is one that has earned Stewart many fans in the Hoosier State, but it's also been Stewart's well-chronicled adoration of the 2.5-mile Brickyard that has earned him a devout following.

The former U.S. Auto Club (USAC) and IRL IndyCar Series champion grew up about 45 minutes from the historic track in the towns of Columbus and Rushville. In fact, before Stewart made his debut at Indianapolis in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 -- where he started on the pole no less -- he drove a tow truck while trying to make ends meet as an aspiring USAC driver.

Stewart would drive down Georgetown Road toward 16th Street, running parallel with the speedway's 3,330-foot-long frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running at 200 mph.

He finally got to experience that feeling in 1996, but it would be an agonizing 10 years before Stewart experienced his ultimate wish -- winning at Indy.

But after standing inside the speedway's victory circle in 2005, it only took a year and 209 days for Stewart to score his second Indy triumph when he led seven times for a race-high 65 laps en route to a dominating win in the 2007 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

Stewart earned those wins as just a driver. They were big -- the biggest of Stewart's career -- but trumping them would be winning a third Brickyard trophy as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing.

That opportunity presents itself this Sunday, and just as Stewart has seized other opportunities in the past, he aims to do so again in this year's running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

How would winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing compare to your first Brickyard win?

"It would be awesome. A perfect example was the first year we won the Chili Bowl, which is the biggest Midget race in the country. I won it for good friends of mine, Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby. Then we were able to win it two years later, but it was the first time I had won it driving my car, and it was just an unbelievable feeling knowing that I had a hand in helping build the program.

"It's always been a dream to win in Indianapolis, and I've been very blessed and fortunate to win it twice now, and that's something that if I died tomorrow I would die a happy man because of those two races. But it would be that much more special to win it as a team owner, too. It's been so much fun working with this group of guys, and even if I didn't win it, if Ryan (Newman, driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation/U.S. Army Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing) won the race, I would have the same feeling of gratification just being a part of it and being able to help Ryan realize his dream. It would mean just as much to be the winning car owner for Ryan as it would be for me to win it as a driver and owner."

What was going through your mind a year ago when you announced that you were leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to become a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing?

"A year ago I was about half scared to death. Obviously, I had made a decision at this point that was definitely a life-changing decision and a career path decision, for sure. It was hard to anticipate what exactly the reality of the changes were going to be and what the rules were going to be. We thought we had an idea of what it was going to be like and it hasn't disappointed us, but it's been smoother than I thought it was going to be. At that time, we didn't have a competition director, we hadn't hired a crew chief -- we had a lot of variables that were unknown at that point. Once we got these key people in place, it's made my job a lot easier and been a lot smoother than I thought it would be at this point. We've exceeded our expectations to this point. Not that we really set goals and said this is where we want to be at any stage of it, but I think this is much higher than we possibly could have expected it to be at this point in the season."

When you looked at the schedule for this year and set expectations, did the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard jump out as one of the goals for the team?

"Honestly, this was a project that was so big that I'm not sure that we really actually set goals other than what I had instilled in Bobby Hutchens (competition director) and Darian Grubb (crew chief, No. 14) and Tony Gibson (crew chief, No. 39) and Ryan. I wanted us to go to the racetrack each week, give 100 percent, and in our competition meetings on Monday, I wanted us to sit down and discuss everything that happened during the weekend. Talk about the things we did right, talk about the things we did wrong, and figure out how we can make things better for the next week. So that was my goal, was just to make progress every week. The success that we've had up to this point of the season has come much quicker than any of us would've dreamed, but we're very pleased with it, very excited about it and we feel fortunate about it."

Do you approach this race any differently as an owner rather than just as a driver?

"No, honestly you can't. You hear people talk about it when it goes to playoff time or anything like that in any other sport, you pretty much stick to what you've been doing and what's working for you. You don't come here and try to do anything any different. That's when you get yourself outside the box.

"The great thing for me is I've got a great support structure at Stewart-Haas. It allows me the flexibility to just come here and worry about doing what we do best, and that's drive. It's hard to play the owner role and the driver role on the weekends. I mean, I don't want to sit there and worry about what the tire bill is for the weekend. I want to worry about making sure I know what I need to do as a driver. We've worked really hard to establish that system before we ever got to Daytona, and it's worked to this point, so we won't change it when we come to Indy."

What's been your biggest challenge as a driver/owner?

"I was really emphatic about it when I spoke to Darian Grubb before we left for Daytona with the fact that I work for him on the weekends, and I'm not his boss. He's my boss on the weekends. It's knowing what each other's roles are, and it works best if I'm working for him. All the guys on the team, I worked really hard with my guys saying, 'Hey, I'm just one of you guys. I'm just one of the guys on the team. I'm your driver on the weekends.' We've worked really hard on that relationship early in the season to make it to where it's as easy as possible."

Is it just a matter of surrounding yourself with good people?

"Yeah, absolutely. The one thing that being with somebody like Joe Gibbs for the last 12 years is you learn a lot about how to organize people. And I can promise you, Joe doesn't know anything about those racecars. He doesn't know how they work, but he knows how to hire the right people to do the right jobs in the organization, and that's what has made him successful in the NFL. It's what's made him successful in NHRA and NASCAR. He's extremely successful at hiring the right people to do the right jobs. Part of that process is being able to take five resumes that can be identical and being able to pick which guy is going to work with everybody else in the organization and has the right mindset, no matter whether there's eight more guys that have the same skills. That's something that I feel like I was able to bring from Joe Gibbs Racing and apply to Stewart-Haas."

Halfway into your tenure as a driver/owner, is there anything that you would've done differently?

"It's hard to sit here leading the points and say that you would do anything different. It's all been hard, but it's all been fun at the same time. I don't know that I would've changed anything. It was fun going through the process because it was like starting my open-wheel teams and opening my racetracks and hiring people for that, it's just 10 times bigger than that. There's more people, there's more positions that needed to be filled and obviously the challenges along with going -- you had meetings with people at midnight at the shop when you knew nobody else was going to be there so the rumors didn't get started and stuff leaking out that you were even talking to people. That's just little things that I never had to do with my open-wheel teams and with the racetracks. But at this level, you have to do that to ensure you're keeping the security of what's going on in place. It's been such a smooth transition that there hasn't been that one hang up or hiccup that's happened that has put us in a tailspin."

Can you compare what you are accomplishing now as a driver/owner to what Alan Kulwicki did in 1992 when he won the Sprint Cup championship -- the last driver/owner to do so?

"I think it's an unfair comparison. He had to work a lot harder than we did because he had his own engine program. He had to do his own chassis. That's something we've had the advantage of this year with our alliance with Hendrick Motorsports and knowing that we don't have to worry about the engine package each week. We don't have to worry about the chassis and how they are evolving. We have that luxury that Alan didn't have. I think still, to this day, that's one of the most remarkable accomplishments I've ever seen in this sport after having been in it for a while."

Tires were a major issue in last year's race. Goodyear has had many tire tests at Indy to prepare for this year's race. Do you expect the tire situation from last year to be resolved?

"Am I concerned about the tires? Not at all. I came up here for two days. Ryan has been up here quite a bit with Goodyear, and I can promise you they have put a full-court press on making sure we don't have the issues that we had last year. I've gained a lot of respect for Goodyear over just the process of working on the tire for Indianapolis and the dedication that they've shown to making sure that that doesn't happen again.

"We were able to run almost 30 laps and still not even be down to the cords on the tires, so I'm very confident that with a full field here that there shouldn't be any issues at all. You obviously can't guarantee that, but I can tell you that from the test session, and normally the test is a lot worse on tire wear than it is during a race weekend, that we were able to run 30 laps and feel very comfortable. They've got a tire that will be just fine, and not only is it going to be durable, but I think the way that the tire is going to make for a great race, too, with the way that the tire performance falls off. It doesn't wear out fall off, but it just falls off because of heat. I think Goodyear has come back with a combination that not only is durable, but should be better for racing, too.

"I know the biggest topic about this race is obviously the tires going into it. I truly believe that we're not going to have those problems that we had last year, and I know there are a lot of fans that are on the fence on whether they want to spend the money to come back to this event. I'd strongly urge you to come. I honestly feel like we're over that hump now, and like I said, Goodyear really put a huge effort into making it right.

"I personally think we're going to be all right with it and I think it's going to be a good show, and I'd hate to see people make the decision to not come with the fear of it being like last year because I think they've got over that and past it, and I think everything is going to be just fine. That's my two cents on the personal side. I don't think it's anything that the fans should worry about. I think they should come and anticipate a race like they're used to seeing here."

The Allstate 400 at the Brickyard pays the same amount of points as any other Sprint Cup race. Why is it such a big deal for you?

"It's my home race, obviously. Growing up in Indiana and every year watching the Indy 500 and the whole month of May leading up to it, a race at the Brickyard is more than just a regular points race. It's always been a big race to all of the Cup drivers, but then when you grow up in Indiana, it just makes it that much more important."

Do you have a favorite story from growing up and coming to races at Indy?

"I rode my bike to school every day, and your parents beat it in your head to stop at stop signs and wait for green lights before you cross the road. Well, I played 'Frogger' going home, basically with a bicycle, trying to get home as fast as I could trying to get the TV on. That's my biggest memory is just growing up and watching, loving the opportunity to get home. I didn't care how much homework I had. It was the last priority when the month of May was going on and whatever coverage was on TV. You were just glued to it. There wasn't any one particular moment. It's just been something that's been a huge, huge part of my life."

What makes Indy such a hard track to get around?

"It's a place that is a momentum-driven track. You don't just have two ends to the racetrack and two big 180-degree corners. You've got four 90-degree corners to negotiate. If you have one bad corner at Indy and if your car's not right, you're going to be bad in four corners versus two corners a lap. And with it being two-and-a-half miles, you carry so much speed, if you lose momentum at that track, it just seems like it's really a big penalty."

Can you compare a lap around Indy in an Indy car to a lap around Indy in a stock car?

"In an Indy car you just don't lift -- if the car's right. But in a stock car, even if it's right, you've got to lift and you've got to brake for at least two of the corners. With the other two corners, you just lift, basically. It's a challenging track in a Cup car. It's a challenging track in an Indy car too, but if you can get it right in an Indy car then you can run it wide-open around there, and that's one less variable you've got to worry about when it comes to getting around the racetrack."

As a winner in both IndyCar and NASCAR, if current IndyCar driver Danica Patrick came to you and asked you for advice about making the move to NASCAR, what would you tell her?

"Nobody knows whether she can do it until she gets out and tries. I don't think she's ever been in anything but an open-wheel type car or Formula 1 type car. I don't know that she's ever driven a heavy racecar. The only way to find out is to get in it and do it. If it's something she wants to do, she has to make the commitment to do it. This is not a sport and a series where you're just going to show up once in a while and be good. That's what happened with me in '96 and '97. In '98 when I ran 22 Busch races (now Nationwide Series), I started getting it. But I was in the car just about every week to start learning that feel, and it was hard to bounce back and forth and be good in both.

"Obviously, she's gotten where she is because she has a ton of talent. You don't back into winning races and getting to the upper levels of racing by not having talent. Nobody knows for sure what level of talent she's got as far as a stock car goes until she actually just gets in one. If she's serious about it, I don't know if she needs to get in a Late Model first and run some laps and then try to get back to a radial-tired car. Only time will tell. If she's really serious, it's kind of a crossroad for her. I know it's been a topic of discussion, but if it's something she really wants to do, she has to be committed to it. It's not something that you can kind of sneak up on. You've either got to do it or not do it."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Alan Kulwicki
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing