Déjà vu All Over Again?
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Aug. 29, 2012) – It’s déjà vu all over again as Tony Stewart comes into the penultimate race before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a tenuous hold on his top-10 point standing.
Last year, Stewart entered the AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway 10th in points, barely above the cut for the 10 guaranteed spots in the Chase, and coming into this year’s race at Atlanta, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet is again 10th in points. In both cases, a lackluster summer stretch where Stewart scored only three top-10 finishes between the Fourth of July weekend race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and the late August race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway forced Stewart to spend more time looking over his shoulder than straight ahead.
Of course, Stewart crafted the rally of all rallies in 2011, and it began at Atlanta where he gained five spots in the final 10 laps to score a remarkable third-place finish. Stewart then finished seventh in the next race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway – the cutoff race for the 10-race Chase – to secure his spot in the Case for the seventh time since its inception in 2004.
All of that was a precursor to what Stewart unleashed in the Chase, where he won a record five races to take the championship in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards, as Stewart’s five victories trumped Edwards’ one.
Stewart comes into this year’s AdvoCare 500 in much the same fashion, but with one major difference – he’s won three times already this season.
In 2011, Stewart was winless entering the Chase, and many wondered – including him – if he was just taking up a spot in the 12-driver lineup. In 2012, Stewart is in a four-way tie for the No. 1 Chase seed, as he, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin each have three wins thus far.
But for Stewart, whose summer swoon has seen him drop from fifth to 10th in points since winning July 7 at Daytona, a departure from the top-10 would be disappointing. He would still make the Chase by claiming the first of two wild card spots, as positions 11 and 12 are awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins, but he’d lose the nine bonus points he’s earned to start the Chase (three bonus points for each win), for only the top-10 in points are allowed to keep any bonus points they’ve accrued.
However, Stewart started last year with no bonus points because he was winless entering the Chase, yet he still managed to walk away with his third Sprint Cup championship. And now as a potentially similar situation greets Stewart, baseball great Yogi Berra’s famous line of, “It’s déjà vu all over again” is incredibly appropriate as the Chase beckons.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’re 10th in points heading into Atlanta. How much different does this feel to you than one year ago at this time? “We’ve at least run well with our Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy. And last year we ran well at some tracks and couldn’t capitalize on it. I think it was worse last year because we just hadn’t won a race all season. If it wasn’t the longest drought we had, it was close to it. So to go that long without a win was pretty heartbreaking up to that point. We’ve got two really good tracks coming up before the Chase – Atlanta and Richmond – so I think it’s a lot different feeling than it was last year at this time.”
Are you worried about falling out of the top-10? “Well, we’re still going to be in the Chase. It won’t be advantageous to drop out of the top-10, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world either. We didn’t have those bonus points last year and we were able to come back. It would be nice to have them, though. It’s nine points that we’d have if we stay in the top-10, so we’re going to do everything we can to keep those.”
Did you learn anything last year in having to come back from nothing to win the championship? “I think it was a good lesson for everybody. This sport, the technology changes so fast. And, it wasn’t like something just came into our organization and turned it around. But, it’s proof that you can be in a slump and it can turn around, literally in a week. So, I think from that side it gives anybody that’s going to be in the Chase, no matter how good or bad they’re running, it gives them that example that it can be done from wherever you’re at, no matter how good or bad you’ve been running.”
What do you expect when you come to Atlanta? “I like racing there. It’s definitely a driver’s track. That’s why we love coming to Atlanta. I hope they never repave it. That will be the one thing that will kill it. If they have to repave it, it will be out of necessity, not because of desire from us. That’s what makes this place fun is the fact that you’re going to move around from the bottom to the top every segment of the race. You are, at some point, going to have to move around and try to find a spot to make your car better. That’s what makes it so much fun being there.”
You have three Sprint Cup wins at Atlanta, and they’ve all come in dominating fashion, especially your most recent Atlanta win in 2010 when you led 176 laps. What are your expectations as you head back to Atlanta? “We had a car that was just dominant all night long, and you just don’t get very many nights where you’ve got a car that’s that good. So, hopefully when we go back we’re going to have that same opportunity.”
How is your confidence when you come to a racetrack where you have multiple victories and many other strong finishes? “It always makes you feel good because know how to win there. It’s a matter of getting that feel to know what you need for the race. You always have that level of confidence knowing that you’ve been successful there in the past and you know how to do it.”
What does it take to be successful at Atlanta? “Just understanding what you’re going to have at the beginning of the race isn’t what you’re going to have at the end of the night. You have to be patient until it gets dark and until that temperature cools down, and once it starts settling into the nighttime hours, you can kind of get a better idea on what you’re going to have for the rest of the race.”
What are the challenges you face at Atlanta with the race beginning in the daylight and ending late at night? “Just the balance change, really. When the track cools down at Atlanta, it gains a lot of grip. It’s a very temperature-sensitive racetrack. So, the biggest thing is just keeping your balance and keeping up with it as the track cools off. Normally, I can’t say that it changes a bunch balance-wise, it just changes a lot grip-wise. So, just having the car adjustable enough from the start of the race to the end of the race is important.”
How fine of a line is it to find a comfort level when you’re on the racetrack at speed, particularly at Atlanta, where you’re running over 200 mph? “Well I don’t know that it’s a fine line. I mean, either you’re comfortable or you’re not. Nothing is happening this year that hasn’t happened for 100 years in racing. There’s nothing magical or mysterious going on here. Everybody is going out every week and we’re working with technology, but still at the end of the day, you’ve got a driver that’s driving the car. No matter how fast the computer says that car is going to be, if that driver is not comfortable driving it, then they’re not going to go fast. So you’ve got to tune these cars to the drivers and their feels, and that’s what makes them go fast.”
Is Atlanta the fastest track on the circuit? “Speed-wise, it is when we qualify. In the race, it’s not. But for one lap, qualifying there is definitely a hold-your-breath lap. You’re running on a ragged edge, and your qualifying lap is your make-it-or-break-it lap. You’re always running a lot faster than you did in practice, and you just don’t know what you’re going to get out of your car. It seems like if you go just that little bit overboard, it really catches you off guard. It makes you hold your breath and grip the wheel that much tighter if you miss it.”
Source: Stewart-Haas Racing