TONY STEWART It's That Time of Year Again KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (June 22, 2010) - The kids are out of school. Daylight lingers well past 8 p.m. Humidity is omnipresent. Oh, and Tony Stewart is knocking down top-10s like candlepins. It's official.
It's That Time of Year Again
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (June 22, 2010) - The kids are out of school. Daylight lingers well past 8 p.m. Humidity is omnipresent. Oh, and Tony Stewart is knocking down top-10s like candlepins. It's official. Summer is here.
The absence of school buses coupled with rising dew points on these long days has surely been noticed, but quietly lurking as spring turned to summer is none other than Stewart, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion who is always in style by being fashionably late.
The driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing is up to his usual tricks, shaking off a sluggish start that at one point this year had him 18th in the championship standings only to roar back to 10th entering Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
Thanks to four top-10 finishes in the last five races - two of which were top-five results at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway (third) and Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn (fifth) - Stewart has not only clawed his way back into the ever-important top-12 in points, but he's earned a solid 108-point advantage over 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man currently on the outside looking in at the 12-driver Chase for the Championship with only 10 races remaining before the Chase field is set.
And there appears to be no stopping the man they call "Smoke," for Stewart has shown that summertime is when he typically catches fire. Want proof? Of Stewart's 37 career Sprint Cup victories, six have come in the month of June, with 27 others being earned between July and the end of the season in November.
Two of those victories have come at New Hampshire - July 2000 and July 2005. In fact, in 22 career Sprint Cup starts at the 1.058-mile oval, Stewart has a pole along with the seven top-threes, 11 top-fives and 13 top-10s, all while leading a total of 1,028 laps, second only to Jeff Gordon's total of 1,205 laps led, but with eight fewer starts than Gordon. And to top it all off, Stewart has two wins outside of Sprint Cup at New Hampshire - a NASCAR Nationwide Series triumph in 2008 and an IndyCar Series victory in 1998.
Stewart might've had two more New Hampshire trophies had the past two Lenox Industrial Tools 301s not been shortened by rain. Stewart led twice for a race-high 132 laps in the 2008 race, but was caught outside the top-10 as other teams gambled that they'd have enough fuel to go the distance if rain ended the race prematurely. Instead of spraying champagne in an already waterlogged victory lane, Stewart had to settle for 13th when the race was cut 17 laps shy of its scheduled finish.
And in a case of dejà vu, Stewart again found himself in the same predicament in last year's June trek to the Granite State. He led once for 40 laps, only to see rain cut the race 28 laps short of its planned 301-lap distance. Once again, drivers who gambled on fuel mileage were rewarded, while other drivers, like Stewart, were penalized, as he ran out of time to get back into the lead. Instead of winning, the native of Columbus, Ind., wound up fifth.
While Stewart is a staple of summer, he can do without another summertime staple - late afternoon showers, as they've twice thwarted his bid to pick up Sprint Cup win No. 3 at New Hampshire. But if the shower is one of champagne from the track's victory lane, well, that's one rain dance he can handle.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is it about this time of year where you really excel?
"When it starts getting hot and humid and the tracks get hot and slippery, that's what we like. When guys can't hold it wide open and they can't sit there on high-grip tracks and they actually have to drive these things - that's when we start getting fast."
Explain a lap around New Hampshire.
"It's a big motor deal. With the corners being so tight, you've got to put a lot of gear in the car to get it up off the corner. Forward bite is always an issue there too, so it's hard to get up off the corners. Then you've got long straightaways where you can kind of relax a little bit. Coming into the corners, you use a lot of brake, and it's hard to not only get the car stopped, but to get it to turn. Then you go through that challenge all over again."
Is New Hampshire a good place to race?
"Obviously, I like it because I've had success there. But at the same time, it's a tough track to pass on. You can be a couple of tenths faster than a guy, but it still takes you 20 laps to get by him. There are other tracks on the circuit where it's hard to pass, but we still go out and put on good shows there, too. Every race at Loudon seems to be a pretty good race. So, I like it. I enjoy racing there even though it is hard to pass. But when you've got a good car, it's always fun to race."
While you've won at New Hampshire, you've also had races where you've struggled. How can one race weekend turn out great and another turn into one you'd rather forget?
"If you miss on something it can be a miserable day. It seems like you don't see but three or four guys during the day that really hit it. That's what makes a day there miserable when you miss. It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day. And it seems like you can have bad track position, but if you have a car that drives well, you can drive your way to the front."
Because New Hampshire is a difficult racetrack, are some drivers beat before they even make a practice lap because they have a negative outlook about the racetrack?
"It certainly doesn't help if someone has a bad attitude going in there. It kind of puts a strike against you, but I'm not going to say that you're already beat. There are tracks that I've been to that weren't my favorite tracks, but I still found a way to win there. You've just got to stay focused and work hard to find what it takes to be good."
New Hampshire marks the return of Danica Patrick to NASCAR, as she's competing in Saturday's Nationwide Series race while continuing to run a full IndyCar Series schedule. Having made the successful transition yourself from Indy cars to stock cars, what are the challenges she's dealing with?
"It's a lot easier when you can get in the car and then the next week get in the same type of car. Bouncing around is difficult, for sure. But I think, versus looking at it strictly from this year's standpoint, she's trying to get a head start for the future and get her feet wet and start building that base of information that she needs for the future. It's not the most advantageous thing if you want to go out and get results right away, but it is advantageous if that's what your goal down the road is - to be able to start building that database in your mind about how to drive these cars and to learn that new feel. So, it does make it harder going back and forth between the cars and, especially, taking a break for the Indy 500 during May. It will take some time to get re-acclimated, but at least she will have that feel and she will be able to pick back up on it. It may not happen right away each time she gets back in it, but at least it will be somewhat familiar each time. I think everybody has to be fair to her and realize she's going through a learning curve. You look at how many drivers before her have tried to come from Indy cars and have struggled. I think she will learn it. It's just a matter of time. I don't think she will focus on what everybody says. I think she'll go off of what she feels and, if the media and everybody gives her a fair shake, I think she will do just fine."
What was the toughest thing to adapt to upon making the switch from open-wheel cars to stock cars?
"The physical weight of the cars. Midgets weigh 900 pounds. Sprint cars weigh 1,200 pounds. Silver Crown cars weigh 1,400 pounds. Indy cars weigh 1,550-1,600 pounds. Before NASCAR, the only other thing that I had driven that had any weight to it was an IMCA Modified and it weighed 2,400 pounds, as well as my Late Model which weighs 2,400 pounds. You go from those kinds of cars all the way to cars that weigh 3,300-3,400 pounds - that was probably the biggest adjustment."
What did you learn while driving Midgets and Sprint cars that contributed to your NASCAR success?
"I was used to driving cars with higher horsepower. The Midgets didn't have a ton of horsepower, but the horsepower to weight ratio was around three-to-one. With a Sprint car you've got about 800 horsepower, and they only weigh 1,200 pounds. Learning to deal with all that horsepower in a Sprint Cup car was something that was familiar to me already. Whereas, you go to a lot of the Late Model and Sportsman divisions around the country and most of those people aren't used to dealing with that kind of horsepower."