Michigan International Speedway
‘Formula’ for Success
The last NASCAR driver to swap seats between his “tin top” and a Formula 1 racecar was Jeff Gordon back in 2003 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon also happens to be the most recent race winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, as he scored his second win of 2011 and the 84th of his career last Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
Tony Stewart recently swapped seats with Formula 1 standout Lewis Hamilton at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course, with Stewart taking over the McLaren MP4-23 Hamilton drove to the 2008 world championship. Hamilton, meanwhile, took the wheel of Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet Impala fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
Fun and appreciation for each other’s craft was found by both drivers, and while Hamilton looks to emulate the success of his McLaren teammate Jensen Button, who won last Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, at the series’ next stop in Valencia, Spain on June 26, Stewart plans to duplicate the success of seat-swap predecessor Gordon this weekend at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn when he returns to the familiar confines of his No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy.
With two wins so far this year, Gordon appears locked into the Chase for the Championship. That’s because only the top-10 in points after round No. 26 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway are assured of making the Chase. The 11th- and 12th-place spots are reserved for the two drivers outside the top-10 but among the top-20 who have the most wins. So far, Gordon leads this charge.
Stewart, meanwhile, has a tenuous hold on a top-10 point standing. He’s currently ninth, but his SHR teammate, Ryan Newman, is essentially tied with Stewart in points, as he holds the same amount of points but is slotted 10th via Stewart holding the tiebreaker of best finishes this season. Gordon lurks just six points behind both drivers, while perennial winner Denny Hamlin is nine points back.
Stewart knows that winning cures all ills, for not only does a “W” earn you a potential Chase berth, but the points that come with a victory are stout and can quickly push one from the Chase bubble to well within the top-10. And Stewart knows better than anyone that the next best opportunity for a win comes via Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan.
Stewart has acquitted himself well at the 2-mile oval nestled in Michigan’s Irish Hills. He won the June 2000 Sprint Cup race, where he started 28th, and in doing so, set a record for the farthest back any Sprint Cup driver has come to win at Michigan.
He also holds the record for greatest improvement from a starting position at Michigan. The two-time Sprint Cup champion started 41st in the 2007 Citizens Bank 400 and advanced 38 positions to finish third, besting the previous mark of 36 places earned by Jimmy Spencer (40th to fourth) in the 1996 June race.
“I made sure I crossed the start/finish line at the green dead last,” said Stewart about lagging behind at the start of the race. “I made sure (A.J.) Allmendinger got by me so I could say I went from dead last to wherever we finished. From 43rd to third, that’s a pretty good day. I’m not going to complain about that at all.”
Stewart earned his best starting spot at Michigan in June 2003 when he qualified second to then Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, marking the first time Joe Gibbs Racing cars sat on the front row for a point-paying Sprint Cup race.
Throw in his victory in round three of IROC XXV at Michigan in 2001 – his first IROC win – and Stewart’s body of work at the D-shaped oval is impressive. Lock down another Michigan win and the 40th total victory of his Sprint Cup career – all after swapping seats with a Formula 1 champion – and the word “impressive” finds new meaning.
It’s just incredible the technology behind it.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What was it like to drive a Formula 1 car?
“It’s just amazing what the capabilities of the car are. I told the guys on pit road that it’s probably going to make my crew chief a little more stressed during the weekends because I’m going to want it to handle like that all the time. I don’t think we’re ever going to get it there. It was fun. It was truly an experience of a lifetime. I just can’t thank the people at Mobil 1 enough for helping facilitate this. I’m glad I didn’t know what these cars were like 20 years ago because I may not have put a fender on a racecar after that. I’m glad I had the experience, and thankful to Lewis (Hamilton) and the entire McLaren team for letting us do it.”
What impressed you the most about the Formula 1 car?
“I have a background with Indy car racing, so I’m somewhat familiar with downforce, but not this level of downforce. And I never drove them on a road course. I think probably the thing that stood out the most was how incredibly efficient and good the brakes are – how far you can go. I never got to full potential of what the car was capable of doing in a braking zone. It’s just amazing how far you can charge the corner. It’s easy to see why it’s hard for these guys to overtake because it’s not a long distance from the time you get off the throttle and on the brakes to where you’re changing directions. It gives you a much greater appreciation for how hard it is for these guys to overtake each other and what that car’s actually capable of. It’s just incredible the technology behind it.”
Summer is nearly here, and there’s plenty of heat and humidity to prove it. It’s this time of year where tracks get hot and slick and cars start sliding around where you seem to excel. Are you looking forward to this upcoming stretch of races?
“We are headed into a section of the season I’m definitely looking forward to. There’s a string of tracks coming up where I’m comfortable, because I know, historically, we’re good at them. Every week you start over on Friday. We have a fresh start Friday morning and we will work hard to make it as good as we can.”
Where does Michigan rank in terms of all the 1.5- to 2-mile, D-shaped ovals that are on the Sprint Cup circuit?
“It’s so wide and there are so many lines that you can run – that’s what makes Michigan fun for drivers. The drivers can really help themselves out if they don’t have a car that’s working right. You can literally race from the white line on the apron all the way to the wall. That’s the groove. You can move around on the racetrack and find a spot that helps your car do what you need it to do. You have to figure out how to gauge your momentum and know where you want to be on that racetrack when you enter those corners. Depending on how your car is driving, you can move around on the racetrack and help yourself. Michigan’s layout gives the drivers the flexibility to really make a difference in their car’s handling, and that’s what makes Michigan such a fun racetrack.”
How do you dial your racecar into Michigan’s track conditions? Is it a bunch of minor tweaks or are major changes made?
“Well, it’s a balancing act. You can’t get too crazy and get out there too far because you can’t give up the points, but at the same time, if what you’re doing’s not working, then you’ve got to start looking. If what you think is your base and what you’ve got to stay with, if that’s not working, you’ve got to do something different, but you can’t afford to get so crazy that you take a chance on absolutely having a disaster day. At the end of the day, that can be the difference of whether you’re inside that Chase and racing for a championship or sitting there those last 10 races going ‘How did we not get in it?’”
The Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 will run on Father’s Day, which is appropriate considering how many fathers were instrumental in their son’s racing careers. How influential was your dad, Nelson, in getting you where you are today? And what were some of the life lessons he taught you as a kid that you’ve taken with you today?
He never let me settle for second.
“He never let me settle for second. He didn’t like it when we ran second, and he knew that I didn’t like it when we ran second. If he saw that I wasn’t giving 100 percent, then he was on me pretty hard about it. He pushed me to be better.
“He never pressured me to be the best racecar driver in the world, but he did want me to be the best racecar driver that I could be. He never compared me to anybody else. He expected that what I could do was what I could do. He never said that because this guy over here could do something, that I should be able to do it, too. He pushed me hard, but he was fair about it. That’s probably why you see so much fire in me today, because he always wanted me to be the best that I could be.
“He’s my dad, so obviously he’s seen and done a lot of things that I haven’t. He’s given me some good advice over the years, but probably the best advice he ever gave me was to just remember the people who have helped me, because somewhere along the ladder that you’re climbing up, you’re eventually going to climb back down, and you’re going to meet those people again sometime.
“I’ve watched the folks that he’s dealt with in his career and in mine, and we’re still friends with all the people that we’ve raced within the past. We never felt like we were better than anybody else. We always kept those relationships, and we always treated those people the way they treated us.”