TONY STEWART Fueled Up for Michigan KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (June 10, 2010) - Tony Stewart rolls into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race weekend at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn fresh off a solid third-place finish last Sunday at Pocono ...
TONY STEWART Fueled Up for Michigan
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (June 10, 2010) - Tony Stewart rolls into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race weekend at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn fresh off a solid third-place finish last Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. The driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet, along with crew chief Darian Grubb, rolled the dice on fuel mileage to gain significant track position with a little more than 40 laps remaining in the 204-lap race, and then held it to pick up their best result since finishing second March 21 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
That they earned a strong finish on smart strategy bodes well for their chances at Michigan, for the sweeping, 2-mile oval is known for its fuel mileage races. The track has a history of victors who won because they played the fuel mileage game just right, from Brian Vickers in August 2009 to Jeremy Mayfield in August 2005 and many more before them.
Stewart has done that too, most notably in last year's June race at Pocono. There, Stewart's pit crew got him off pit road ahead of Carl Edwards on the race's final pit stop. When the green flag dropped with just 34 laps to go, Stewart was out front with Edwards and Jimmie Johnson in pursuit. But it turned out to be not much of a pursuit, for everyone was watching their respective fuel gauges. As a result, the pace backed way down, with each driver hoping the other drivers would run out of fuel. Stewart never did, and he literally coasted to his first victory as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing.
It was just the second time in Stewart's 12-year NASCAR career that he won a fuel mileage race, with the first coming in October 2006 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City. There, Stewart gambled he had enough fuel to make the final 71 laps around the 1.5-mile oval. The gambled paid off, but just barely. Stewart led the final five laps of the 267-lap race and coasted across the finish line with an empty tank to score his 27th career Sprint Cup victory.
Stewart thoroughly enjoyed those victories, for more often than not, he's been on the losing end of fuel strategy. Such was the case in his first trip to Michigan as a Sprint Cup rookie in June 1999, where he earned a ninth-place finish and his only DNF (Did Not Finish) of the season when his racecar sputtered out of fuel on the last lap and failed to make it across the stripe.
Stewart has acquitted himself well at Michigan since, winning the June 2000 Sprint Cup race, 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.
Stewart also holds the record for greatest improvement from a starting position at Michigan. The two-time Sprint Cup champion started 41st in the 2007 Citizens Bank 400 and advanced 38 positions to finish third, besting the previous mark of 36 places earned by Jimmy Spencer (40th to fourth) in the 1996 June race.
"I made sure I crossed the start/finish line at the green dead last," said Stewart about lagging behind at the start of the race. "I made sure (A.J.) Allmendinger got by me so I could say I went from dead last to wherever we finished. From 43rd to third, that's a pretty good day. I'm not going to complain about that at all."
Stewart earned his best starting spot at Michigan in June 2003 when he qualified second to then Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, marking the first time Joe Gibbs Racing cars sat on the front row for a point-paying Sprint Cup race.
Throw in his victory in round three of IROC XXV at Michigan in 2001 - his first IROC win - and Stewart's body of work at the D-shaped oval is impressive.
So, whether it comes via brute strength or via the nuance of fuel mileage, Stewart is ready to add to his already impressive Michigan resume with another strong run in Sunday's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You've won races by successfully gambling on fuel mileage. How did you do it?
"We've lost plenty of races that way, so it's nice to get one every once in a while. It's typically a battle between the driver and the crew chief. The crew chief is yelling at you every lap to save fuel, but you're not slowing down enough and he knows it because he's looking at the stop watch. And when you've got guys behind you, you know you don't want to give those spots up in case they happen make it on fuel. So, you try to save as much fuel as you can and still hold guys off."
Your first fuel mileage win came at Kansas, which has a layout similar to Michigan. How did you make sure you'd finish?
"When we were coming down the backstretch, I asked how many laps we had left and they said, 'You're coming to the white (flag).' Then I saw the needle start bouncing and it wasn't on zero, but it was down to three pounds and bouncing up and down. We came down the frontstretch and it started losing pressure when we went into turn one. Then it caught up for a second, but as soon as we came off turn two, it lost pressure immediately. It's just important to get it kicked out of gear right away and just get down low on the race track and take the shortest distance around. We just coasted around and hoped we had enough of a lead to stay out front. Turned out we did."
Summer is nearly here, and there's plenty of heat and humidity to prove it. It's this time of year where tracks get hot and slick and cars start sliding around where you seem to excel. Are you looking forward to this upcoming stretch of races?
"We are headed into a section of the season I'm definitely looking forward to. There's a string of tracks coming up, and it started at Pocono, where I'm comfortable, because I know, historically, we're good at them. Every week you start over on Friday. We have a fresh start Friday morning and we will work hard to make it as good as we can."
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 go about dialing your racecar into Michigan's track conditions? Is it just 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?'"