Phoenix II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Smoke Signals KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Nov. 11, 2009) -- With both of Stewart-Haas Racing's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams in the Chase for the Championship, it's safe to say that Tony Stewart's foray into NASCAR team ownership has been...

TONY STEWART
Smoke Signals

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Nov. 11, 2009) -- With both of Stewart-Haas Racing's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams in the Chase for the Championship, it's safe to say that Tony Stewart's foray into NASCAR team ownership has been a successful one. But that comment would only scratch the surface, for Stewart has been a car owner for nearly a decade, fielding championship entries in the U.S. Auto Club (USAC) and the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series.

How many championships? Eleven in all -- eight in USAC and three in the World of Outlaws, with the most recent titles coming last Saturday night when Donny Schatz claimed this year's Outlaws championship for Brownsburg, Ind.-based Tony Stewart Racing. And Stewart will officially get one more this weekend, as his USAC driver, Levi Jones, leads the Sprint car standings by an insurmountable 178 points heading into the USAC season finale in Tulare, Calif. It will be Jones' third career Sprint car title.

So while this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup title may be out of reach for Stewart, championships in the other series where he has an ownership stake are well in hand. That should signal to Stewart's competitors in the NASCAR garage that the man nicknamed "Smoke" will continue to be a championship presence. Just as his open-wheel program got better with age, expect the same with Stewart's NASCAR operation.

NASCAR's April visit to Phoenix International Raceway was a case in point. After top-10s turned into top-fives during the season's first seven races, Stewart scored the first runner-up result for Stewart-Haas Racing when he finished second to race winner Mark Martin. That run served as a precursor for a string of success achieved by Stewart-Haas Racing, for a month later, Stewart won the non-point NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C. His teammate, Ryan Newman, then won the pole for the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 the next week. Stewart then took the championship point lead in early June after a second-place finish at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. The first point-paying win came the next week when Stewart won at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.

Stewart went on to notch three more wins while Newman locked down another pole, and all the while the two were completing the most laps of any of their competitors, as the duo is currently ranked 1-2 in most laps completed. Stewart has completed all but 22 of the 9,913 laps available and Newman has only missed 23 laps. Their nearest challenger in this category, David Reutimann, has failed to complete 84 laps.

With the series returning to Phoenix this weekend for the penultimate race on the Sprint Cup schedule, winning is all that really matters, which suits Stewart just fine. With the championship being a match between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, Stewart is content to drive his No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS all out.

All-out is an appropriate way for Stewart to be at Phoenix. The two-time Sprint Cup champion began his professional racing career at Phoenix back in 1993, and has logged more laps there than any other driver. He's raced and practiced stock cars, Indy cars, USAC Midgets and Silver Crown cars and even Supermodifieds around the venerable 1-mile oval. It's a self-described West Coast home away from home for the Columbus, Ind., native.

And now in his return trip "home" via Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500k, Stewart aims to finish just one spot higher than he did back in April.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

How impressive was Donny Schatz's Outlaws championship this year?

"Any time you win a national championship, it's impressive. This is a series where your points are accumulated all year long. It's not a Chase format. And to go out on the road and run more than 60 races a year like those guys do, it's a tough, grueling schedule. For him to win the championship four years in a row, and two years in a row for us, is really impressive. I'm really proud of him and Ricky Warner (crew chief) and all the guys on the Armor All/STP Chevy. It's an awesome way to cap off the season for us."

What are your thoughts on adding another championship with Levi Jones wrapping up the USAC Sprint car title? And a TSR-affiliated driver, Josh Richards, won the World of Outlaws Dirt Late Model championship last weekend. Tell us about that.

"I don't know for sure, but I think we probably set a record there being the first organization to win a World of Outlaws Sprint Car championship and a USAC Sprint car championship in the same season and on the same night. That was a pretty cool deal, especially for Josh Richards. We're not his car owner, but we're part of his program. To have him win the Late Model championship on the same night, that's pretty impressive."

You've been a car owner of open-wheel teams for nearly a decade. Did that help make the transition of becoming a car owner in NASCAR that much easier?

"It definitely gave us some insight on what it was going to be like. Obviously, at this caliber, and with the amount of people we have at the Cup level, it was hard to know exactly what it was going to be like. But having that experience of being a car owner in the past definitely got us pointed in the right direction when it came time to make the decision to be a Cup owner."

Because you're a driver, do you think the success of your teams is due, in part, because you know what type of driver you need to have and what that driver needs to be successful?

"I think I've been around the sport long enough that I've seen how it's not about individuals. It's about how to put the whole package together. It's about the right driver with the right crew chief with the right equipment, and if you can do that, a lot of times it leads to success."

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, Nationwide Series cars, and of course, Sprint Cup. 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."

Can you explain how Phoenix differs in the way the car handles in turns one and two as opposed to turns three and four?

"Every type of car that I've driven here -- from USAC Midgets and Silver Crown cars to Supermodifieds to Indy cars to Nationwide cars and now the Sprint Cup cars -- running all those different divisions, the one common variable is the two ends of the track are unique and different from each other. It's always been a situation where if your car is really good in (turns) three and four, you're normally a little bit tight in (turns) one and two, and if you get one and two really good, you're normally a little bit too loose in three and four. You do have to weigh the options and try to find that balance of which end of the track is more important to you. You know you're not going to be perfect in both ends, and you'll have to pick one end or the other to get your car really good. I do have a preference, but I don't tell everybody else that. That's what having all these years and these laps of experience there does for me. It's the one secret variable that I try to use to my advantage."

How did you transition from one type of racing to another?

"It's more fear than anything that I'm going to have to get a real job if I'm not successful. That's the great thing about running USAC and being in Indiana where not only did we have winged Sprint cars and non-winged Sprint cars, Midgets, Silver Crown cars, we ran on dirt tracks one night and pavement the next. We ran Modifieds and Late Models. There were just so many things to drive around there that you learned how to adapt, and you learned how not to have a preconceived notion about how a racecar is supposed to feel and drive. You learned to read what the car was telling you as far as what it liked and disliked, and learned how to change your driving style accordingly. Especially at Phoenix, every car we've driven there, even though the track's the same, they all drove different. You just had to adapt to it and learn to read the racecar, instead of thinking this is what the car I ran last night felt like and it's supposed to feel like this today. It doesn't work that way."

Is it safe to say you have Phoenix figured out?

"I've definitely spent a lot of time there. Myself and Arie Luyendyk were the two lead test drivers for Firestone when we were in the IRL. We spent a lot of time in Phoenix because the weather is so good out there all year long. We would spend three days out there tire testing and we had two or three of those sessions through the winter. I got to spend a lot of time running around Phoenix. I probably know every line around the track that's ever been ran and why it's been ran. It helps when you get in the stock cars or anything you get in when you're out there. I pretty much know how to get around there."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Donny Schatz , David Reutimann , Levi Jones , Mark Martin
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Hendrick Motorsports