TONY STEWART Onward and Upward KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Aug. 11, 2010) - When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last visited Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn in June, Tony Stewart was coming off a third-place finish at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and ...
Onward and Upward
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Aug. 11, 2010) - When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last visited Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn in June, Tony Stewart was coming off a third-place finish at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and hoping that his first top-five result since coming home second at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in March was a sign that his season was finally trending upward.
Stewart was 13th in the championship standings, one point outside the top-12 and acutely aware that his third-place run from the week before would be viewed as a fluke if he couldn't back it up with another solid run at Michigan, for with the exception of a ninth-place finish in early June at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Stewart hadn't finished better than 15th since that second-place effort at Bristol.
Moments after the checkered flag dropped at Michigan, Stewart stepped out of his No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala not in the garage area but on pit road, as it's where NASCAR holds the top-five finishers for interviews with the media. Stewart was an unspectacular yet solid fifth. It was his 15th top-10 finish in 23 career Sprint Cup starts at Michigan, and it signaled to Stewart that his season was finally headed in the right direction.
"That's the best car we've had in a long time, so I'm really proud of our guys," said Stewart after the race. "We're definitely gaining on it. I felt racy today. It was a pretty good day for the Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy. I feel like we're starting to gain on it. Two good runs in a row and two top-fives in a row is exactly what this team needs right now."
The effort brought Stewart up to 11th in the title standings, with a 57-point buffer over 13th-place Clint Bowyer - the first man on the outside looking in at the 12-driver Chase for the Championship
"I'm not as panicked about the top-12 right now as I think some of the guys that are close to that bubble," Stewart added. "If we keep rifling off top-fives like this, we won't have to worry about it. We'll be there."
Seven races later, Stewart is indeed there. As he returns to Michigan for round 23 on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule, Stewart is handily among the top-12 with an eighth-place point standing and a healthy 234-point cushion over 13th-place Bowyer with just four races remaining before the Chase field is set.
The uptick Stewart saw at Pocono and Michigan kept going as the Sprint Cup Series crisscrossed the nation from Sonoma, Calif., to Loudon, N.H., down to Daytona, Fla., over to a Midwest tour that involved stops in Joliet, Ill., and Indianapolis before returning to Pocono and then heading northward to the series' most recent stop in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Two runner-ups, three top-fives and six top-10s were tallied, rallying Stewart to eighth in points, where he's now only 30 points away from third-place Jeff Burton.
Stewart is poised to make the elite Chase for the sixth time since its implementation in 2004. The two-time Sprint Cup champion - the only champion to win the title under the old, full-season format (2002) and the revamped, 10-race Chase format (2005) - is now looking toward securing wins, and the valuable 10 bonus points each win carries into the beginning of the reset Chase standings entering round one Sept. 19 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
Winless thus far in 2010, Stewart is hungry for victory. The 12-year Sprint Cup veteran has won at least one race in each of his 11 previous seasons, collecting 37 victories in all, one of which came in June 2000 at Michigan, where he started 28th, and in doing so, set a record for the farthest back any Sprint Cup driver has come to win at Michigan.
The next opportunity to keep his win streak alive and pick up 10 bonus points for the Chase is in Sunday's CARFAX 400, where Stewart will eschew the company's tagline of "Show me the CARFAX" and instead go with "Show me the trophy."
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
When you're this deep into the season without a win, what goes through your mind, especially when you're used to winning?
"This is my 30th year in racing. You take one weekend at a time and you don't think about the numbers as to how long it's been since the last time you've won. You just go with the same attitude you do every weekend, and that's to try and win the race. You go through the steps of trying to put yourself in that position to be there at the end of the day. You focus on what you need to do to win the race you're in."
Is the fact you haven't won yet a testament to the competitiveness of the Sprint Cup Series?
"You can't predict who is going to be good each week. This sport is more competitive than it's ever been. It's a cool time to be a driver in this series, for sure."
What is your approach heading into the last four races before the Chase?
"You have to be cautiously aggressive. You still have to keep in mind that if you take a chance and don't finish a race, that you'll lose a lot of points, and the 10 bonus points you thought you might gain for the Chase won't happen either. You have to do the same things that have gotten you to victory lane in the past. You can't afford to take too many unnecessary chances. The main thing for us is to do the things we've been doing to keep us in position where we can win races each week and get those bonus points for the Chase."
Since finishing 23rd on May 8 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, you've only finished outside the top-10 twice and moved from 18th in points to eighth. How?
"We're getting our cars better, and that's what I'm happy about. I'm not really that worried about the points. I mean, it's not like we're comfortable because we're not locked in yet. So, you still have to worry about it, but I'm more worried about what we've got if we get to the Chase. It doesn't matter if we get to the Chase and don't have anything to run for a championship with. We've got to just keep plugging away. We're not all the way there, but we're gaining on it and that's encouraging. This is the time of the year when you want to be building momentum and not losing it. We've had some strong runs here recently. I'm hoping that trend is going to keep going. If it does, I'd much rather be in this situation than leading the points when it doesn't get you anything."
How do you gain momentum going into the Chase, and then sustain that momentum once you're in the Chase?
"You just have to keep running well. You have to keep going and doing what you're doing each week. It would be nice to go out and rip off three or four wins before the Chase starts, but if you're not doing that, not having the bonus points is not necessarily going to kill you, but you just have to be really good and consistent in the Chase, and if you can do that for 10 straight weeks, you can have a shot at it no matter how many bonus points you had to start with."
Where does Michigan rank in terms of all the 1.5- to 2-mile, D-shaped ovals that are on the Sprint Cup circuit?
"It's so wide and there are so many lines that you can run - that's what makes Michigan fun for drivers. The drivers can really help themselves out if they don't have a car that's working right. You can literally race from the white line on the apron all the way to the wall. That's the groove. You can move around on the racetrack and find a spot that helps your car do what you need it to do. You have to figure out how to gauge your momentum and know where you want to be on that racetrack when you enter those corners. Depending on how your car is driving, you can move around on the racetrack and help yourself. Michigan's layout gives the drivers the flexibility to really make a difference in their car's handling, and that's what makes Michigan such a fun racetrack."
How do you dial your racecar into Michigan's track conditions? Is it a bunch of minor tweaks or are major changes made?
"Well, it's a balancing act. You can't get too crazy and get out there too far because you can't give up the points, but at the same time, if what you're doing's not working, then you've got to start looking. If what you think is your base and what you've got to stay with, if that's not working, you've got to do something different, but you can't afford to get so crazy that you take a chance on absolutely having a disaster day. At the end of the day, that can be the difference of whether you're inside that Chase and racing for a championship or sitting there those last 10 races going, 'How did we not get in it?'"