TONY STEWART Desert Roots Paved Route to NASCAR ATLANTA (Nov. 6, 2007) -- A start by reigning NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion and current point leader Jimmie Johnson in any one of the season's final two races is all that separates Tony...
Desert Roots Paved Route to NASCAR
ATLANTA (Nov. 6, 2007) -- A start by reigning NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion and current point leader Jimmie Johnson in any one of the season's final two races is all that separates Tony Stewart from being mathematically eliminated from this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup. But when it came to his realistic shot at staying in title contention, Stewart knew that his bid ended two weeks ago after he finished an uncharacteristic 30th at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
But that doesn't mean there isn't any fire left in the two-time Nextel Cup champion, as there are still races to be won, beginning with this weekend's penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway.
As evidenced last year, Stewart excels when points are of little matter. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing missed last year's Chase by a scant 16 points, but he roared back during the 10-race playoff and served the role of spoiler by taking three Chase victories in a six-race span.
Stewart is back in familiar territory, not just because winning races trumps earning points, but because he's returning to the race track that served as the launch pad for his meteoric career.
Phoenix is Stewart's West Coast home away from home. The Columbus, Ind.-native has raced at the 1-mile oval in six different types of race cars -- USAC Midgets, USAC Silver Crown cars, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, a NASCAR Busch Series car and a Nextel Cup car. But it was his performance in a Silver Crown car in February 1993 at Phoenix -- his first race ever at the desert mile -- that turned heads and had team owners in the IRL IndyCar Series and in NASCAR asking, "Who is this kid?"
The event was the famed Copper World Classic and the season-opener for USAC's Silver Crown division. Stewart qualified second to Davey Hamilton -- a former IRL veteran -- and led 31 of the 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss -- the 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion. The $3,500 payday for his second-place effort made eight-hour days at $5 an hour in the cold confines of the machine shop where Stewart worked in Indiana seem unnecessary. Packing the rest of the 1993 season with Silver Crown, Sprint and Midget races across the nation, Stewart's quick ascent up the racing ladder began.
Almost three years later, Phoenix again served as another rung on that ladder.
With his USAC "Triple Crown" championship firmly in hand, Stewart tested A.J. Foyt's Indy car at Phoenix in October 1995. For five days Stewart lapped the Phoenix oval under the dutiful watch of the four-time Indianapolis 500 champion.
A month later, Foyt's crew needed someone to drive their car at Texas World Speedway in College Station for a TV commercial. While it was a long way from an actual race, the 24 year-old Stewart took the invite as a positive measure of Foyt's belief in him. Stewart's instincts were right on, because just after having dinner at Foyt's Texas ranch, Foyt offered Stewart a ride in the IRL IndyCar Series for 1996.
The IRL was still in its infancy, so the 1996 season Foyt offered Stewart amounted to Disney World in January, Phoenix in March and Indianapolis in May. But Foyt wasn't the only car owner who was interested in Stewart.
Harry Ranier, a NASCAR team owner who had fielded race cars since 1967 and recorded 24 wins, was looking to get back into ownership after selling his team to Robert Yates at the conclusion of the 1988 season. Ranier's second attempt at NASCAR team ownership came in November 1995 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the NASCAR Busch Series season finale. Stewart was his driver.
The start-up team didn't make the race, but Stewart had a handshake agreement with Ranier to run a handful of Busch Series races in 1996. Foyt didn't like the idea of sharing his driver with another owner, and told Stewart as much. But Stewart wasn't comfortable in backing out of his deal with Ranier, so he turned down Foyt's offer.
"What aspiring driver turns down an offer from A.J. Foyt?" asked many in the motorsports community. But for Stewart, it was a matter of principle. Today, few can knock Stewart's thought process.
The nine Busch Series races he ran for Ranier turned heads in the stock car world, one of which belonged to Joe Gibbs. The three-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins hired Stewart to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 1997. Twenty-seven Busch Series races and two years later, Stewart was in Cup. And at Phoenix -- the track that gave him his start in professional motorsports -- Stewart earned his second Cup Series victory by beating Mark Martin to the finish line by more than two seconds in the 1999 Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500k.
A Cup Series history that now includes two championships and 32 victories continues at Phoenix with this Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500k.
How do you think the championship will play out during these last two races?
"It'll be interesting to watch Jeff (Gordon) and Jimmie (Johnson) go for it, and I don't think you can count Clint Bowyer out of this thing yet. He's a guy that can still do it. He's hung in there this whole Chase, and if those two guys make a slip he's right there and in a position to take advantage of it. It's really a three-horse race."
Has being out of championship contention allowed you to try different setups in preparation for next year?
"The stuff that we're doing right now, by the time March gets here and we get through with Daytona, technology may have already passed this stage up and we may be on to something else. It's not that we're trying anything for next year, it's just that we're trying to accomplish our goal, which is to go out and do whatever we can to win the race."
What is it about this year's Chase that differentiates it from other Chases you've been a part of?
"You just can't make a mistake. We talk more about not making mistakes being the key than doing a good job. Just one bad day is what has cost some of these guys, us included, the chance to run for the championship. That's the hard part about it, but at the same time, that's what makes winning one of these so special, because you can't have anything go wrong for 10 straight weeks. That's hard to do."
Has switching back-and-forth between the older generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo and the future generation Chevrolet Impala/Car of Tomorrow (CoT) impacted how you get ready for a race weekend?
"It hasn't. Last week at Texas, I was in a Busch car and a Cup car and it didn't make any difference in how I went about my weekend. No matter what kind of a car it is, it still has four wheels and it's either tight or loose or sliding in a four-wheel drift just like all the other types of cars I've grown up racing with. It's just another race car. It obviously doesn't handle like the cars that we've had, but it wasn't designed to do that. It really hasn't been a big deal. I think it's shown as the year has gone on how professional these teams are and how quick they are to adapt to something new. I think that's the most impressive part of the CoT."
Has it taken any longer to figure out how to adapt the CoT from a short track to a longer race track like Phoenix?
"No, there hasn't been any difference. Setups are still setups and these teams have been doing this for a long time. They know how to go from one track to the next. It's really not that big of a deal."
Because of all the racing you did at Phoenix before you became a Nextel Cup driver, do you consider Phoenix your West Coast home away from home?
"When Buddy Jobe (former owner and president of Phoenix International Raceway) had this facility he was the one who told me that Phoenix was my West Coast home away from home. And I didn't realize it until I came to Phoenix when I was with the IRL and saw how many test sessions we had at Phoenix and how many laps I had put in there before a race even started. Whether it was tire testing or chassis testing the IRL car or a USAC Midget or a Sprint car, I spent a lot of time at Phoenix International Raceway. I really do feel like it's my West Coast home away from home.
"When we come out to Phoenix two times a year, it's like a homecoming each time. It's a place where I feel comfortable. I know every inch of that race track. I've driven six different types of cars there, and between all those cars I've run at least five different lines. I feel like I know it better than most of the other folks who've just run stock cars there."
How long have you been racing at Phoenix?
"I started racing there in '93 when I ran a Silver Crown car. And since then, I've run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, Busch cars, and of course, Nextel Cup in The Home Depot car. So, I've logged a bunch of laps there. To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it's the place where my career came full-circle."
Did all those laps you made over the years at Phoenix help prepare you for when you first went there in a Nextel Cup car?
"I think so. With every different division of car that I've run there, I've ended up running a different line. With that, I've learned a lot about that race track and where the sweet spots are on that race track. I was used to the place when it came time to run there in Nextel Cup. I knew a lot about that race track and the different places that can make you go fast or slow. It gave me an opportunity to adapt a lot more to the car than to the race track."
Because you're so familiar with Phoenix, do you enter this weekend's race with an added sense of confidence?
"Sure. Any time you go back to a facility that you've had success at, you're always excited to go back there. It's not only the performance that we've had there, it's the total draw for me enjoying Phoenix so much. We have a chance to go to Manzanita, and in the fall, my Sprint cars are out there. I get a chance in the evenings to go watch my own cars race as well as do what I do at the Cup track.
"It's just kind of the total package when I go out there. It's a great facility. Obviously, there aren't too many tracks you go to that you look over the backstretch and you see mountains and cactus everywhere. You hear people talking about cowboys going up there in the morning with a bag and grabbing rattlesnakes the day of the race to clear them out so people can sit down. It's just a pretty special race track."