KANNAPOLIS, N.C., “Go West young man, go West and grow up with the country.” That quote is attributed to the late American newspaper editor and 1872 presidential candidate Horace Greely. The phrase, one of the most commonly used quotes from the early 19th century, was used by Greely to encourage the territorial expansion of the United States, a notion commonly referred to as Manifest Destiny.
For example, some could say that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart exercised a version of Manifest Destiny one year ago when he went two for three during the early-season Western swing of the Sprint Cup schedule, bouncing back from a 22nd-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway by winning a week later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and two weeks after that, winning again at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Aside from a mid-March visit to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, NASCAR spends the next month competing west of the Mississippi River. Phoenix, Las Vegas and Fontana all make up the Western swing, and it begins anew with this weekend’s Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix.
Stewart qualified second for last year’s spring race at the mile-long oval in the Arizona desert. He led nine laps and was in position for a top-10 finish when a freak, mid-race engine issue dropped him to 22nd. But Stewart quickly put that disappointment behind him, winning at Las Vegas to score his first victory at the track and winning at Fontana to log his second Sprint Cup win at that track.
That kind of early success is what Stewart is striving for again, as a crash in the season- opening Daytona 500 last Sunday left Stewart a distant 41st in the 43-car field. Victory at Phoenix would quickly move Stewart up in the all-important championship point standings, something the three-time champion (2002, 2005, 2011) is keenly aware of.
But Stewart is also aware of a new variable – NASCAR’s sixth-generation (Gen-6) Sprint Cup car. According to the NASCAR calendar, Phoenix marks the second race for the Gen-6 car, but to many, it’s the first true test of a teams’ program.
The first race for the Gen-6 car was last Sunday at Daytona, but that track is an anomaly on the Sprint Cup schedule. For that race, teams built slick racecars, sculpted them in the wind tunnel, and then fitted those cars with engines designed to mine horsepower from the constraints of a horsepower-choking restrictor plate.
Phoenix is the bellwether track, as it’s the first venue on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule where mechanical grip is as important as horsepower and aerodynamics. It’s where teams will discover who has found the most efficient way to make their new Gen-6 car go fast.
For Stewart, who wears the dual title of driver and owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Phoenix represents a race within a race – the one on the track and the one at the race shop, where one- upmanship during the week determines who’s No. 1 on Sunday. Come Friday when practice begins, Stewart tosses his car owner hat aside in favor of a Simpson helmet. He’ll want his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS to the best of the bunch.
Considering Stewart’s experience at Phoenix, success isn’t hoped for – it’s expected. The Columbus, Ind., native has been racing and winning at Phoenix since 1993. In the Sprint Cup Series alone, Stewart has scored one win, eight top-fives, 11 top-10s and has led a total of 555 laps in 22 career starts – all while being a model of consistency, completing all but 14 of an available 6,941 laps for a completion rate of 99.8 percent. And that’s only a small portion of the action Stewart has seen at Phoenix.
In addition to Sprint Cup cars, Stewart has made laps at Phoenix in NASCAR Nationwide Series cars, Indy cars, Supermodifieds and USAC Midget and Silver Crown cars during the course of the last 30 years. There isn’t another driver on the circuit who has logged more laps at Phoenix in as many different cars as Stewart. It’s his ability to adapt and adjust to different cars that not only gives Stewart a leg up on the competition in regard to being able to get a quick handle on the Gen-6 car, but it effectively places him in a league of his own, much like those Western pioneers who followed the creed of Manifest Destiny.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What did you learn about the Gen-6 car during last year’s tire test at Phoenix that will help in your return to Phoenix this weekend? “I ran a day-and-a-half at the tire test at Phoenix and we didn’t even have a steel body car, it was a fiberglass-bodied car. I didn’t really notice a lot there. There was probably a bigger understanding of what we got during the one day we had at Charlotte (N.C.) than what we learned at Phoenix.
The car’s got a lot of downforce. It’s a little easier to drive. For a new car to come out in that short amount of time, for it to drive that well, that’s a pretty big feather in NASCAR’s cap to have a car that drives that stable.”
How easier is it to drive compared to the previous generation car? “I’m able to be a lot more aggressive with my Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy. I’m not sure you have to have as much finesse with it. I think it’s going to give more drivers an opportunity to run a lot better with it because it’s got a lot of downforce and a lot of sideforce. It will definitely catch mistakes that they make.”
What is the biggest challenge to overcome during the first part of this new season? “I think just learning the new car and finding the combination. We’re starting basically from scratch. There are some things that you take away from what we did last year, but any time you have a major change in the bodystyle like we have this year and the rules changes that we’re having, that’s the No. 1 obstacle – trying to figure out what this car likes and dislikes so it gives you a direction.”
Is too much emphasis placed on Daytona in terms of how teams are going to perform for the rest of the season? “Daytona is a restrictor-plate race and, unlike Daytona, guys can’t get in a line at Phoenix and go to the front. Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it’s more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can’t help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race.”
How long have you been racing at Phoenix? “I started racing there in ’93 when I ran a USAC 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.”
Did you take an immediate liking to Phoenix in 1993 when you ran there in USAC? “When we ran the USAC cars out there, it was pretty cool because I had never gone that fast before. It’s just one of those tracks where, to run a Midget and a Silver Crown car there, it definitely got your attention. It was pretty fast.”
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 differently. 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.”