Big-Game Hunting at Bristol
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Aug. 24, 2011) – That Tony Stewart is sporting some camouflage on his No. 14 Chevrolet Impala while carrying a giant Bass Pro Shops logo on his hood for Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway is appropriate. After all, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion is big-game hunting.
Stewart, a six-time participant in the Chase for the Championship since its inception in 2004, is looking to make a seventh appearance in the playoff-style title hunt. Only three races remain before the 12-driver field is set for the 10-race Chase, and Stewart currently holds the 10th and final guaranteed spot. The 11th- and 12th-place spots are reserved for wild cards – drivers between 11th and 20th in points who have the most wins, and if tied for wins, the driver of the higher point standing gets the invite.
Stewart is still winless this season, and bagging a Bristol trophy that’s nearly the size of some big-game animals on many hunter’s wish lists would go a long way on two fronts – it would keep the 13-year veteran’s streak of winning a race in each season he’s competed in Sprint Cup alive, while also shoring up a berth in the Chase.
Stewart’s season-long search for a win could very well come at Bristol. He has a win, a pole, four top-threes, six top-fives, eight top-10s and has led a total of 1,354 laps in 25 career Sprint Cup starts at the .533-mile oval in the east Tennessee mountains.
But for someone who eats what he kills, Stewart has also left Bristol quite hungry. He has 10 finishes outside the top-20, and in two of those instances, Stewart led more than half the race – 257 laps led in March 2007 and 267 laps led in March 2008. You could say they were the big ones that got away.
However, Stewart is the owner of 39 race trophies in Sprint Cup, and the 40-year-old driver from Columbus, Ind., comes into Bristol looking to nab career win No. 40. With a No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Office Depot Chevy prepped and polished for the Irwin Tools Night Race – and with a Chase berth on the line – expect Stewart to have victory in his sights.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
With only three races to go before the 12-driver field for the Chase for the Championship is decided, do you have a strategy to ensure you’re in the Chase for a seventh time?
“If you win races the points take care of themselves. Every week when we go to the track we’re going to try to win the race, and if we can’t win we’ll finish as high as we can and get as many points as we can. Once we do that, the points will just have to be what they are.”
With the pressure upon some drivers to make the cut for the Chase, will it make Bristol an even more aggressive race?
“I don’t think it’ll be any different. I still think when it comes to racing, guys are simply just racing. I think at the end of the day they look at the point standings, but for the most part, the whole time you’re out there you’re worried about winning the race or doing as well as you can. I really don’t think people’s mindsets will change.”
Can you summarize your history at Bristol?
“Bristol is one of those places where you’ve got to have everything kind of go your way. If you have one hiccup, it’s hard to recover from it. We’ve only won one race there and we’ve kind of been all over the board. It’s been feast or famine for us. It’s like if you have one problem in the first half of the race, it’s hard to recover from it. It makes for a very long day. We’ve had more long days than good days.”
How miserable is it when you get several laps down at a track like Bristol?
“It’s a place where it’s hard to have a good day. There are so many variables that can go wrong at Bristol versus other tracks. If you have that one bad incident that gets you in the back, it’s hard to recover from that. There are guys who have done it and do a good job at it, but you have to have a great racecar to be able to recover from something bad, especially if you get laps down. It’s like going from the bottom of the mountain and climbing and climbing and not getting anywhere. You fight and fight and fight and at the end of the day you’re right where you were when you had your problem.”
What do you enjoy most about racing at Bristol?
“I’ve always liked that the crowd is right there at the edge of the track – all the way around it. You can just feel the excitement from the fans. The fans that go to Bristol are passionate about racing. And whether they like you or hate you, they love their racing at Bristol. I’d say the fans are the best part of Bristol. It’s just a cool place and a cool atmosphere, and it’s because of the fans.”
What’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions the Bristol night race?
“It’s exciting. To me, that’s the best race of the year. It always has been. You can feel the excitement level around it, and anytime you’re racing at night, it’s cool. When the cars hit the ground, you can see the sparks. Bristol has always had that cool atmosphere because of how short it is and the way the grandstands are there, and then you do it at night on top of that, it’s just got a cool feel to it. And to put that many people in such a small area, at a track that is very unforgiving, provides a lot of people a lot of excitement.”
What does it take to be successful at Bristol at night?
“The same thing as the day, you just can’t have anything go wrong. You have to have a perfect racecar if something goes wrong to be able to have a shot to get back. If you don’t have a perfect racecar, it’s impossible to get caught back up. So, you’ve got to have a problem-free day, but you’re going to have to have a good racecar. There’s a bunch of guys that are really good there now, and you can’t be a little bit off and have a good day. You’ve got to be on your game.”
Since Bristol was resurfaced a few years back, folks have said that racing isn’t as good. Is that revisionist history or has the racing changed not because of the track, but because of the current generation of racecar?
“The track, for sure, is better. You don’t have to just run behind guys and wreck them to get past. You can use the whole racetrack now. As a driver, especially on a track that size, that’s what you look for. That’s all you can ask for, is to have a place that you can move around. I don’t know that the COT (Car of Tomorrow) has really changed it any differently. I guess I just don’t think about it. The big thing is just making sure you’ve got a car that you can move around on the racetrack with. If you can do that, you’re probably setting yourself up for a good opportunity to have a good day because you’ve got to be able to move and switch lanes and run different grooves instead of just running around the bottom all day.”
You’re now in your 13th Sprint Cup season and you’ve made 25 career Sprint Cup starts at Bristol. You’ve seen a lot of racing there. What stands out?
“It’s a hard race to win. You look at guys like Rusty Wallace who have had so much success and won so many races there, it shows you how good you have to be to win and win there consistently. It only takes one minor incident to screw up your day. You would think being a short-track race that if you have a great car you can get there, but normally one small mistake will take that opportunity away from you. Seems like you have better odds of something happening that keeps from you winning than you do of actually winning.”
Some of those “odds” have been some pretty spectacular last-lap scrapes where someone gets spun for the win. Are there any that you remember in particular?
“Watching Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte crash on the last couple of laps – a couple of those races have always stuck in my mind. They just prove you can have the fastest car there and still not win if one guy lays the bumper to you wrong.”