That Escalated Quickly
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (April 25, 2012) – When the green flag drops for the Capital City 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, it will have been 230 days since the last time the stars of the Sprint Cup Series raced at the .75-mile oval in eastern Virginia.
And what a 230 days it has been for Tony Stewart, diver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
Entering the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond on Sept. 10, 2011, there was a legitimate question as to whether Stewart would make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as only the top-10 drivers in points, as well as two additional drivers between 11th and 20th in points who had the most wins, would be eligible to compete for the championship.
Stewart was 10th in points with a 23-point cushion over 11th-place Brad Keselowski, and had the ability to lock himself into the Chase by simply finishing 18th or better. However, a surging Keselowski – who in the last five races leading into the Chase cutoff race at Richmond had scored two wins and notched other finishes of second, third and sixth to climb from 21st to 11th in points – was a threat to bounce Stewart out of Chase contention.
A seventh-place result in the 400-lap event put Stewart in the Chase, but he was about as much of a favorite to win the title as Cale Yarborough, who last competed in the Sprint Cup Series in 1988. Stewart hadn’t won a race all season and despite being a two-time champion, was almost an afterthought as the 10-race Chase began.
Then something strange happened.
Stewart won the first two races of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Three more wins at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway gave Stewart an unlikely third title after an incredible battle with runner-up Carl Edwards.
Two wins in 2012 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., means Stewart has won seven of the 18 races conducted since the checkered flag flew last September at Richmond. He’s also won his fair share of open-wheel races around the country, including the Rumble in Fort Wayne (Ind.) on Dec. 31 at the Memorial Coliseum Expo Center, the All-Star Circuit of Champions 410 Winged Sprint Car race on Feb. 11 at Screven Motor Speedway in Sylvania, Ga., and a 25-lap feature in the American Sprint Car Series (ASCS) Midwest Region event last Saturday night at Eagle Raceway in Bennington, Neb.
Stewart was honored as the 2011 “Driver of the Year” by more publications and organizations than anyone cares to count, including yet another “Driver of the Year” award which will be presented to him next week at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.
Before that ceremony, however, Stewart will return to the Commonwealth in hopes of scoring his fourth Sprint Cup victory at Richmond.
In addition to his wins in September 1999, May 2001 and May 2002, Stewart has nine top-fives and 17 top-10s to give him an average finish of 10.9 in 26 career Sprint Cup starts. He has also led a total of 817 laps with a lap completion rate of 98.3 percent. And outside of Sprint Cup, Stewart has two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wins at Richmond.
After that September night in Richmond last year, things began escalating quickly for Stewart, and he’s hoping the trend continues with another victory at the track he considers his favorite.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Are you able to carry momentum from last year into the first few races of this season?
“I’d like to think so. I think our whole organization has. For Ryan (Newman, teammate) and me to both have wins this year is a start to the season that we’ve never had in our organization. Our guys did such an awesome job the last year in the Chase, but then it seemed like as soon as the Chase was over – literally, Monday morning – they were back at it and wanting to figure out what we could do to get another championship.”
How much has Greg Zipadelli, your crew chief for 10 years at Joe Gibbs Racing and now your competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing, played into the fast start this season?
“I think he’s still settling in and finding his groove right now, and I think Steve Addington (crew chief) has played a big part in our start. But having Zippy there is a big peace of mind for me, personally. Zippy is one of those guys who won’t go to bed at night if he thinks something is wrong. So, his dedication to the program is definitely why we got him back.”
Is there a unique chemistry from top to bottom in your organization?
“Yeah, I think so. Corporation-wise, we’re probably not as corporate as some of the other teams are, but we’re a diehard group of racers, that’s for sure. And if that’s what helps produce the results, we’ll take it.”
With three Sprint Cup wins and two Camping World Truck Series wins, you’ve had a lot of success at Richmond. Is it one of your favorite tracks?
“It is my favorite track. It’s not one of them, it’s the favorite track of mine on the circuit. I’ve just always thought it’s the perfect-sized track for a Cup race. The other short tracks we run – Bristol and Martinsville – they’re cool in their own right, but there’s a lot of congestion at those two tracks. But at Richmond, it just seems like that extra quarter-mile, and that three-quarter-mile shape, and how wide the groove gets there, allows for good racing. It seems like we have to race ourselves and race the racetrack versus racing each other a lot of times. You do have to race each other, obviously, but there are a lot of times during the race when you have the flexibility to move around on the racetrack and try to find a spot your car likes better than somewhere else. A lot of times on a short track you don’t have the flexibility. You’re more narrowed down with what groove you’re going to be in.”
What does it take to be successful at Richmond?
“As much as you’re racing everybody else, you have to race the racetrack. It just seems like a place where if you can get the balance right it makes it an extremely fun day. With the two ends of the track being different like they are, it seems like you’re always fighting something, but that’s what always makes the racing good, too. You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect. Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”