The University of Kentucky is indeed home to the Kentucky Wildcats, but with school in summer recess and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in town for its inaugural race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Tony Stewart is best positioned to carry the “wildcat” mantra.
That’s because the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil1 Chevrolet, which will sport a special Back-to-School paint scheme for the 400-mile race around Kentucky’s 1.5-mile oval, is the ultimate wildcat.
Currently 12th in points with no wins so far this season, Stewart lurks as a contender for his first Sprint Cup victory of 2011 and the 40th of his career. That he’s had near-misses and has sometimes used his car as a missile in the 17 races prior to Kentucky means Stewart can still do some schooling while also dishing out some discipline.
He suffers no fools. Treat him with respect and he’ll respond in kind. Taunt him and you might just get eaten.
With only nine races remaining to earn a spot in the 12-driver Chase for the Championship, Stewart is hungry to secure a Chase berth, ideally with victories, as the 11th and 12th spots are reserved for drivers outside the top-10 but among the top-20 in points who have the most wins.
Winning solves everything. A trip to victory lane means you scored the most points possible, which beyond providing stature in the wild-card count for positions 11 and 12, can quickly bump you up the championship standings so that a Chase spot is secured long before the cutoff event Sept. 10 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
With a victory needed to extend his current 12-year streak of winning at least one Sprint Cup race in each season he’s competed to 13 – currently the longest such streak among active drivers – expect Stewart to fight like a wildcat. And with a Chase berth still on the line, it’s a fight that begins anew in the Wildcat country of Kentucky.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 “Back-to-School” Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
It took 11 years for the Sprint Cup Series to come to Kentucky Speedway, and Kentucky is the first new venue to be added to the Sprint Cup schedule in 10 years. What’s the significance of the Sprint Cup Series finally coming to Kentucky?
“It’s definitely long overdue, for sure. Ever since the speedway opened, we all wondered when we were going to have a Cup date there and definitely think it took a lot longer than all of us anticipated. The Tri-State area has such deep racing roots with dirt track racing and pavement racing – it’s a perfect market, it’s a perfect area, and the race fans that go there are true diehards.”
You’re from Columbus, Ind. Will racing at Kentucky feel like a homecoming of sorts?
“I’m a Southern Indiana guy, so the track is not very far from where I grew up and where I currently live. It’s kind of a home track to us, and that’s kind of the feeling we have going into it. You always want to run well at your home tracks. Even though Indy has always been my home track in the past, now having Kentucky Speedway there, it’s as much home to me as Indy. We’re definitely looking forward to it.”
What is the process when you race at a track for the first time?
“The first thing you do is try to figure out the line around the track. When we tested there in the past, we didn’t have a lot of rubber down because there weren’t a lot of cars running a lot of laps. It was a lot harder to really get a gauge on what the line was around there. That’s what you’ll spend the first part of the day on – on Thursday, the practice day. You’ll just work on the line, figuring out your braking points and where you need to get back in the gas. At the same time, the crew chiefs and the engineers are going to be trying to figure out how to get ride heights where they want them – the standard things they do every weekend. The drivers are going to have to take a little bit of time in learning the racetrack.”
Do you have any expectations heading into Kentucky?
“I’m excited about going to Kentucky. I like going to new places where we don’t have a history. Obviously, there are a lot of drivers who’ve run the Nationwide Series there and do know the track and what to look for. It’s kind of fun for a lot of us. None of us have raced there that don’t run the Nationwide Series on a regular basis. Even though at some point over the last seven or eight years we’ve tested there, none of us have raced there. That kind of makes it fun. It’s neat to go in there and not have an idea of what to expect. It always makes it fun the first time.”
Since it’s been so long since you’ve turned laps at Kentucky, how do you even gather the information you need to form a baseline setup?
“Oddly enough, all the years that NASCAR’s previous testing policy was in place, we were allowed to test anywhere we wanted that the Cup Series didn’t race. It made Kentucky an ideal racetrack for a lot of the race teams to test at during the season for mile-and-a-half tracks. Even though we’ve never brought the current car there, there is a lot of track data as far as where the bumps are on the racetrack, what the corners are like and what the elevation changes are like on the straightaways. A lot of these big teams have data on the racetrack itself, and it’s just a matter of how to apply it to our current car. Even though some of these guys have tested there, none of us have the practical knowledge of what the track conditions will be like during race situations, and how racing at night will be different from the test sessions during the day. It’s not a totally clean slate, but there is still going to be a lot of adjustment going to a new racetrack.”
What would it mean to win the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky, especially since it’s a quasi-home track?
“We’re going to have a lot of our friends and family that are coming down. I know we’re going to have those fans there. We’ve got a lot of followers with the local tracks in that area. That makes it fun being able to race in front of your friends and family and people that we’ve raced against in dirt Late Models and Sprint Cars. The market is really good for us as far as our fan base is concerned. There’s only one first race, and you can only win it once.”
What should fans attending the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky expect?
“It’s hard to anticipate who’s going to be really good during the race weekend. Trying to pick four or five guys that you think are potential winners is really going to be hard. There’s going to be guys like Joey Logano who’ve had really good runs in the Nationwide Series. Guys that have typically been favorites at that track in Nationwide will be favorites in the Cup Series, versus the guys that are typically favorites on a weekend but haven’t raced at Kentucky yet. It brings more guys into the mix. It’s going to be hard to predict what the finish or outcome will be and who will be your guys that will run in the top-five all day.
“The atmosphere is going to be awesome. Anytime you can go to a first event at a new venue, just the excitement and the atmosphere is unbelievable.”
You’ve talked a lot about your fans. Where are you most comfortable with them?
“I think our autograph sessions are the most comfortable because that’s probably where we get to spend time with them when we’re not at the racetrack. It’s not that you don’t appreciate the time at the track with them, but there’s always something in the back of your mind that you’re worried about – trying to get the car a tenth of a second faster, or the fact that your car is loose or tight and you’re trying to figure out in your head what you have to do to make that better. When we’re doing autograph sessions or meet-and-greets where we get to do Q&As with the fans and answer their questions, that’s kind of the fun part. You’re not worrying about the racecar. You’re not worrying about anything at the track. You just get some fun interaction with them, and they know you’re not worrying about the racecar. It’s fun because you can coax them into asking questions that a lot of times they’re too reserved to ask. I like getting people to ask questions that they’ve always wanted to know, but just never had the courage to ask. I can normally draw one or two of those out at a Q&A or an autograph session. It’s fun to hear what they’ve got to say.”
You’re carrying a back-to-school paint scheme on your Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy this week. What kind of a student were you in school?
“I wasn’t the best student. I didn’t get the best of grades, but it was because I didn’t apply myself. From the time I was eight on, I wanted to be a racecar driver. I didn’t understand how important school was at the time, so I didn’t apply myself as well as I should have.”
Did you have a favorite teacher?
“I didn’t have one particular favorite teacher. I was very fortunate to have good teachers through elementary school, junior high and high school. There weren’t very many teachers that I didn’t like. Looking back, you realize that they were all important. I was very fortunate. I felt like the schools I went to were just regular public schools, but we had very good teachers there, and had teachers that had a lot of personality and taught more than just what was in the books.”
Did you have a favorite subject?
“I did. I liked all of my math classes. In high school, I liked physics and geometry. Those were probably the classes I liked the best. Obviously, I didn’t even realize at the time why I liked them so well, but after graduating high school and moving on, you realize how much you use all of that in racing. Those three subjects were very important and still are.”
Did you play any sports, or was gym class your sport?
“I liked everything. I always enjoyed gym class. I liked baseball. I didn’t get to play it at the high school level because of the amount of time we spent racing, but it was something I always wanted to do.”
Were you voted anything like “Most Likely to Succeed” or was anything said about you in your high school yearbook?
“I slid under the radar. I was a pretty down-to-earth and low-key kid. I was so busy racing on the weekends that I didn’t go out and do a lot of things with kids that I went to school with. My time on the weekends was spent racing. Everybody else was going to football and basketball games and I ended up going racing instead.”
By: stewart-haas racing