A Martinsville Elitist
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Oct. 27, 2011) – Tony Stewart is part of an elite group. Believe it or not, it’s not because of his two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. Or 41 career Sprint Cup wins. Or 1997 IndyCar Series title. Or four USAC championships. No, it’s because he’s one of just five active drivers who have won at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway since 2003, a span of 17 races.
Stewart scored the second of his two career Sprint Cup wins at Martinsville on April 2, 2006. It was a rare sight, for since Kurt Busch won at Martinsville in October 2002, the only other active Sprint Cup drivers to visit Martinsville’s victory lane have been Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. (Rusty Wallace, now retired and a NASCAR analyst for ESPN, scored his last Sprint Cup win at Martinsville on April 18, 2004.)
Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, turned Martinsville into Gordonville by sweeping the track’s two Sprint Cup races in 2003 and again in 2005. That run helped burnish Gordon’s legacy at the .526-mile oval, for he logged three previous Martinsville wins back in the late ‘90s.
Gordon’s domination, however, gave way to that of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Johnson, now the five-time and reigning series champion, gave a glimpse of his future stranglehold on the paperclip-shaped track when he won on Oct. 24, 2004. Since then, Johnson has scored five more Martinsville wins, including three straight from October 2006 through October 2007, and then back-to-back triumphs in October 2008 and March 2009.
But just as Johnson usurped Gordon’s dominance at Martinsville, another young hotshot did the same, making sure Johnsonville was known only for sausage.
Virginia-native Denny Hamlin is the current King of Martinsville. He broke Johnson’s win streak when he took home one of Martinsville’s prized grandfather clocks after winning the March 2008 Sprint Cup race, which served as a precursor to his wins in October 2009, March 2010 and October 2010.
It wasn’t until this year’s spring race at Martinsville that an interloper named Harvick finally broke through to score a victory at Martinsville.
That being said, Stewart knows what it’s like to have the upper hand at Martinsville. In addition to his two wins, he has three poles and holds the track qualifying record of 19.306 seconds at 98.083 mph, set in October 2005. He also has eight top-fives, 13 top-10s and has led a total of 1,193 laps in 25 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville. Stewart’s laps-led tally ranks him third among active drivers, behind only Gordon (2,981) and Johnson (1,616).
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing is now a 13-year Sprint Cup veteran, and after logging 6,300 racing miles at Martinsville, Stewart knows a thing or two about the subtleties of the track’s tight and fast layout.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ve had success at Martinsville and a period where you were always a threat to win. What’s that like?
“You can have it, for sure. It’s knowing that feel, it’s finding that combination that works, and the next time you come back to that track you know what that feel is like and you know what you’re looking for in practice for it to be good in the race. During the race, the track changes quite a bit, but you know when you kind of have that rhythm. You have the timing of what it was like, you just know what that feel is in the car that you’re looking for, not necessarily to be good in Happy Hour as much as to be good for the race. When you’ve had a good weekend, the next time you go back it’s just easier to try to go back and mimic that feel. That’s why when guys hit on something they’re normally good for a while until the package changes quite a bit, and then once that changes, you have to learn a different feel. Normally for a while you can have that, and different guys, if you look over the history, have kind of had runs at it. It seems like whether it’s a three or four or five-race period, guys get that feel of it and know what that tire likes, what the chassis combination likes at that time, and they kind of have that and they know how to adapt to it.”
What do you like about racing at Martinsville?
“It’s still that old short-track feel. That’s what I like. We run a lot of 1.5-mile tracks during the year and it’s the only place that races like this. We’ve got two half-mile tracks that we race on. This one’s quite a bit different than Bristol, and that’s what makes it fun. You can out-brake guys and you can run the outside if you get a shot. It’s racing the way we all grew up racing.”
Your last three races at Martinsville have proven to be a challenge. Why?
“It’s been everything for us. If you get a good-handling car, your brakes aren’t really an issue anymore there. We’ve fought handling the last couple of times there and it does make it harder because you’re trying to make up more time in the braking zones. It’s just getting your car to do what you want it to do, just like anywhere else, but if it’s not right, it does bring that brake element back into it.”
Since you’ve struggled of late at Martinsville, what are you doing differently this time around?
“We’re going to Martinsville this weekend with Ryan’s (Newman, teammate) package that he’s been running really well with. We’ve kind of struggled there, so we’re going to start with Ryan’s setup and work our way from there. We know it’s going to be a little different for me and my driving style. Mine and Ryan’s driving styles are a little bit different, but I feel that’s a good place to start for the weekend.
“The last four weeks are tracks that I like and that I’ve had success at, but you know, every time you go to a track, it’s a little bit different than the time before. Your setups change, your packages change, and you hope that you’re staying ahead of it. So, it’s hard to tell whether we’re going to be able to be where we need to be, but we are going to do everything we can to be as good as we can be in all four of these races.”
With four races to go, is there anything your team is specifically working on at the race shop to make you better?
“I hope not, because if they’re working extra hard to do something, it’s something they should’ve been doing all along. This sport is so hard and so technical to begin with that you can’t go into each week not giving 100 percent. And you’re not going to get more than that. You’re only going to get 100 percent out of each person, and if they’re not doing that, there’s plenty of guys out there that will work that hard. But I feel like our guys have done a great job of working hard and keeping the morale of the team up. Our guys and our attitude in our shop is very, very positive right now. We have a really strong group of true racers who have been involved with the team – guys who have been involved with racing for a long time in different series. They’re really keen and savvy when it comes to keeping their morale high and realizing that one bad week doesn’t take us out of it until they say we’re mathematically out. I feel like they’ve been giving 100 percent all along.”