Tony Stewart: Company Man
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Nov. 17, 2011) – Tony Stewart is a company man. Yes, the outlaw who burst onto the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series scene as a rookie in 1999 who brazenly grabbed trophies while wearing his emotions on his sleeve, is 13 years later the best thing to happen to NASCAR since two guys named Earnhardt and Gordon were championship rivals.
This is about as exciting as it gets – to have two guys who are down to three points with one race to go.
That’s because Stewart, the open-wheel phenom who came to NASCAR as a four-time USAC champion and the 1997 IZOD IndyCar Series champion, is on the cusp of earning his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. And he’s doing it in a fashion no one thought possible – as a driver/owner.
Stewart, who left the comfy confines of Joe Gibbs Racing where he spent a decade in Sprint Cup and won championships in 2002 and 2005, struck out on his own in 2009 to form Stewart-Haas Racing with entrepreneur Gene Haas, founder of Haas Automation – the largest machine tool manufacturer in the western world. What people thought was crazy three years ago – a driver in the prime of his career taking on the dual responsibility of team ownership – has morphed into the closest championship battle in modern history, with Stewart providing the kind of drama NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France envisioned when he announced tweaks to the series’ point structure back in January.
A “Game 7 moment” is how France described his desired season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Well, here we are, with an all-or-nothing race on the docket come Sunday’s Ford 400.
Thanks to a hot streak by Stewart, who has won four of the nine races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he trails Chase leader Carl Edwards by only three points heading into Homestead.
Only one finish guarantees either driver the championship – a win. If Stewart and Edwards are tied in points at the end of the Ford 400, Stewart earns the championship via the tie-breaker of best finishes, as Stewart’s four victories trump Edwards’ one. This is the closest margin between first- and second-place going into the final race in Chase history, and the third-closest since the inception of the position-based points structure in 1975.
In Stewart vs. Edwards, it’s the Everyman vs. the Cover man, Chevy vs. Ford, grit vs. suave, stubble vs. polished.
Stewart, already a two-time Sprint Cup champion who knows what this weekend is all about, comes into Round No. 36 of 36 poised and confident, despite the three-point margin Edwards has over him.
Perhaps it’s because Stewart has lopped 16 points of Edwards’ once sizeable lead in the last four races. Perhaps it’s because even before coming to Sprint Cup, Stewart had won nine other driving titles. Perhaps it’s because Stewart has 43 career Sprint Cup wins, two of which have come at the 1.5-mile Homestead oval.
No matter, Stewart knows what has to be done and is keenly aware of the stakes. That the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing could become the first driver/owner to win a Sprint Cup title since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992 is simply added intrigue.
Stewart, after all, is a company man. And in Sunday’s season finale at Homestead, he plans to deliver.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
This battle between you and Edwards is pretty impressive.
“It shows what this Chase is about. It’s a good battle right now. If you’re Brian France (NASCAR CEO and Chairman) right now, I would say he’s giddy. If not, he should be because this is the perfect scenario. It’s the perfect storm, so to speak, going into this last race. That’s what you want. This is about as exciting as it gets – to have two guys who are down to three points with one race to go.
“We’ve both had to fight and fight and fight to get every point we can get up to this point. I think it makes it more gratifying, the results, at the end of the day. I feel like I’m working toward something and I feel like if we accomplish this, we have worked for it, not had it handed to us, not had it given to us. That’s all you can ask for as a driver, is to be in that position.
“I think it’s pretty honorable to be in that situation right now. It’s an awesome championship battle. So, I don’t know how you could ask for more than what we got.”
How much is the experience of having already won two Sprint Cup championships playing into your hands now?
“It’s definitely an advantage, but I’m not going to tell you why because that’s what I’m going to take to Homestead with me. We win this thing, I’ll tell you what the advantage is and why, but not until then.”
You’ve been in two Sprint Cup championship runs before and won both of them. Is this one the most fun?
“I think so. The good thing is we’ve been in this position a lot of times. This isn’t the first time we’ve been in this deal. We have that ability. I didn’t think we belonged in the Chase to start with. I didn’t think we were a factor. What do we have to lose? We don’t have anything to lose. I don’t care about second or third in the points. After you’ve won it, second doesn’t really matter. To me, it’s about going out, getting that championship, doing everything you can to accomplish that goal. We’re not a group that’s going to sit here and say, ‘We’ll take the easy road and settle for second.’ I’d rather finish sixth or seventh in points knowing that we did everything we can to win.”
Can you handicap yourself going into Homestead? How do you and Edwards stack up?
“I think we both have momentum. We both had two really good weeks in a row. I still think our mile-and-a-half program has come a long way this summer. You look at how we ran at Chicago, Kentucky, Charlotte and Texas – we’ve been good on the mile-and-a-halves. I’m excited about it.
“I like Homestead. It’s a place that we had a lot of success when it was flat. We haven’t gotten that win with it banked. I like the way that track races right now. I’m pretty excited about it.
“I don’t know where to handicap it. Doesn’t matter to me. It’s just about getting four more points than he does. That’s all that matters.”
Explain a lap around Homestead.
“You go off into turn one, and when you get into the banking, you lift. If your car is good, you can go and not use any brake, or very, very little brake. You stay one lane off the bottom, past the transition – it’s a little less banking on the lower level toward the apron – so you stay one level above that. As soon as your car settles in you can really just mash right back in the gas and just ride that second level around down onto the backstretch. And then you do exactly the same thing going into turn three. A lot of times in turn three, because of the wind direction there, you can actually go into the corner a lot harder and a lot further, actually turning into the corner before you get off the gas. And it’s the same thing, once that car settles in, you get on the gas and ride it around to the frontstretch. It’s a pretty smooth racetrack.”
With the championship battle between you and Edwards, it means Jimmie Johnson’s run of Sprint Cup titles ends at five. What are your thoughts on his run?
“I think it’s been absolutely remarkable to begin with for Jimmie to put five in a row together. I know this year hasn’t ended up the way he’s wanted, by any means. I think he goes to Vegas (for the season-ending awards banquet) and holds his head up high knowing what they’ve accomplished – the fact that there’s a really good possibility in the history of the sport for eternity that it could never happen again.
“The competition gets tighter and tighter, tougher and tougher. I just think it’s amazing. You understand why people didn’t want him to win a sixth one. At the same time, I’ve said it from day one, how do you knock down a guy that’s going out and doing what he’s supposed to do? If we could trade places with him, we’d do it in a heartbeat, go out and win five in a row.
“I think you’ve got to tip your hat to him. I think that’s something in NASCAR history that I would put my money on that it will never happen again. I just think it’s remarkable at this level to do what he’s done, what that team’s done. I know this year hasn’t ended the way they wanted, but I still think they have to have a lot of pride in knowing they’ve done something in the history of the sport that most likely will never be duplicated.”