KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (March 6, 2013) – Elvis. Singer, dancer, actor and the undisputed king of rock-and-roll. A pop-culture icon transcending time and place, and one of only a handful of historic figures recognized by a single name. Although Elvis has been gone for more than three decades, his legacy casts a long shadow, and it remains visible today. And while Memphis, Tenn., was his home, Las Vegas was recognized as his home away from home. To say that Elvis has not left the building in Las Vegas may be an understatement. There is likely no place on Earth where his presence not only lives on, but thrives.
For nearly 20 years, Elvis and the city of Las Vegas enjoyed a relationship full of mutual admiration. From the first time he performed in the city in 1956 to his wedding to Priscilla in 1967 to a series of shows throughout the 1970s, Elvis seemingly owned the Entertainment Capital of the World. The city even served as the setting for what many critics considered one of his best films with the 1964 hit “Viva Las Vegas.” It’s a period of time affectionately referred to as “The Vegas Years.”
While Tony Stewart doesn’t sing or dance, nor is it likely that anyone will see his name atop a movie marquee anytime soon, he can certainly appreciate the affection Elvis had for Las Vegas. While Stewart certainly enjoys the blackjack tables that dot the Strip, his real passion lies with a parcel of land just north of the city’s bright lights – Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Up until last year’s race, where Stewart led three times for a race-high 127 laps and held off five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for the win, Las Vegas had been as fickle as the wheel of a roulette table.
Stewart had flirted with victories at Las Vegas off and on for 13 seasons. Prior to last year, Stewart’s record at Las Vegas featured three top-three, five top-five and eight top-10 finishes. He led laps, sat behind the wheel of dominant cars, and been close enough to victory that he could almost taste the celebratory champagne – the most blatant example being the 2011 Kobalt Tools 400.
Stewart dominated that race, and victory seemed like a sure bet. Stewart led four times for a race-high 163 laps and, at one point, opened up a four-second lead over his nearest pursuer. Foiling the effort however, was a pit-road penalty that sent him to the rear of the field late in the race. And while Stewart was able to maneuver his way back to second place, the penalty ultimately cost him what was all but a guaranteed win.
Fast forward to last year’s Kobalt Tools 400. Three months after celebrating his third Sprint Cup Series championship in Las Vegas, Stewart returned to the city looking for redemption.
Stewart started seventh in the 267-lap race, but quickly moved toward the front of the field. He took the lead for the first time on lap 134 as he slipped past Johnson. Track position, however, was everything, and when Stewart found himself third on a lap-234 restart, he made a daring three-wide pass on the frontstretch to retake the lead for the final time. However, holding that lead proved challenging, as three separate caution periods allowed his competitors, notably four-time Las Vegas race-winner Johnson, to mount a charge against Stewart. Each time Stewart held him off, and when the checkered flag waved, Stewart had a .461 of a second margin of victory. It was the 13th time Stewart and Johnson finished 1-2, with Johnson taking seven victories and Stewart holding six.
The victory, which came in Stewart’s 14th Sprint Cup start at the track, put a spotlight on Stewart’s prowess at Las Vegas. His stat line now reads: one win, four top-threes, six top-fives, nine top-10s and 482 laps led. And in loop-data statistics, Stewart leads all drivers in the category of fastest drivers on restarts, and ranks among the top-five in average running position (fourth), fastest laps run (second), fastest green-flag speed (fourth) and number of laps in the top-15 (third). And his 357 laps led in the track’s last eight races places him second on the laps-led list behind four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. It all adds up to Stewart owning the third-highest overall driver rating, with only Johnson (first) and Gordon (second) ahead of him.
With a win finally under his belt that highlights his record of proficiency at Las Vegas, Stewart aims to take a page from Las Vegas icon Elvis by making this decade his very own “Vegas Years”.
Tony Stewart, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What did it mean last year to finally get that win at Las Vegas, particularly after coming so close on several occasions?
“I was so glad to finally win one at Las Vegas. We were so close in 2011 and had a dominant car. That’s a race we should’ve won. Winning in this series is hard enough as it is, and when you have a race where you’re able to do pretty much anything you want but not close the deal, that’s hard. So last year’s race absolutely felt great. I don’t think we necessarily had the dominant car, but we had the car that took off the best on the restarts, and we had quite a few there at the end. I think we were hands down the strongest car on restarts of getting to turn one from the restart point, and all the technology Mobil 1 brings to the table certainly helped us with that.”
How tough was it to hold off everyone during all of those restarts at the end of the race last year?
“It was nerve wracking at the end, for sure. Every time the caution came out, you cringed knowing you were giving them another opportunity to take a shot. You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ The other is that every time the caution came out, you knew there was another heat cycle on the tires. But our car was so strong on restarts, we could get to the start/finish line and get to turn one so good – that was a big key in being able to stay out front. We may have been a little bit weaker than everyone behind us during those first three laps after a restart, but we’d break even during the next three laps. And after six or seven laps, we were able to pull away. It was just a great win for us.”
Las Vegas is obviously much different than Phoenix, but it appears that being out front is still the place you want to be, at least based on what we saw last weekend at Phoenix. Is that accurate?
“As time goes on, the sport evolves, technology gets closer and closer, the rules get closer and closer, but the one variable that stays the same is air. If you can get out front and get in clean air, it’s always going to be an advantage. It’s been that way in Formula One, IndyCar, sports car racing. We run with the World of Outlaws and it’s big in the World of Outlaws. It’s not just in the Sprint Cup Series. It’s everywhere you find that because the technology has gotten so close and the cars have gotten so close that it’s little differences like that that make a huge difference on the racetrack. Do I think it’s going to be that way everywhere? Absolutely not. The tracks where the tires fall off more, it’s not as critical because it seems like you move around more. The wider the track gets because of tire wear and the guys can offset themselves, the less the air becomes a factor.”
What is the key to being successful at Las Vegas?
“You know, there’s really no key to it. It’s just like anywhere else you go. You just have to have a well-balanced car. It seems like track position is really, really key there, but as long as you can get your car driving well and stay ahead of it – it seems like as the day changes, or the longer the day goes, the more the track changes and the more you have to stay up with it. You just can’t have any mistakes there because you cannot afford to lose the track position, and you have to be able to stay up with the changing track conditions as the day goes on.”
What is your outlook for this weekend’s race at Las Vegas?
“It’s no different at Las Vegas than anywhere else. You have to get the car to rotate through the corner, but still stay tight enough on entry and exit. There’s no unique challenges there. The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps. Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
What can we expect to see with the new sixth-generation car?
“If I’m being honest, I think it’s still too early to tell. I thought it was pretty sporty last weekend, but that was Phoenix and we’re heading to Las Vegas now – two totally different types of tracks. We’re still very much in a learning process right now, and every time we go on the track we’re going to keep learning. We haven’t had a lot of track time with it, so it’s just hard to say what I expect to see this weekend. I think everyone is looking at the next four or five weeks as learning opportunities. After that, we may be able to give a better answer as to what can be expected going into a race weekend.”
TSC- Tony Stewart