KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Sept. 26, 2012) – Back in the day, Tony Stewart gave George Thorogood a run for his money as the real Delaware Destroyer.
But in the early 2000s, it was Stewart who seemed to be the real Delaware Destroyer, as he was bad to the bone at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
From the time Stewart rolled around the high-banked, 1-mile oval as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie in 1999 and then on through the 2004 season, his worst finish was 11th. And during that span, Stewart scored two wins – back-to-back, no less, in 2000 – and notched eight top-fives and 11 top-10s in 12 starts, all while leading a whopping 1,066 laps, or 22.2 percent of the 4,800 laps available. If Stewart were asked the question, “Who Do You Love?” his answer would be “Dover.”
Then, like Austin Powers, he somehow lost his mojo at Dover, for since 2005, Stewart has only led six laps and has just three top-10s with a best finish of second in June 2009.
Now “Delaware Destroyer” takes on new meaning, for the aptly named “Monster Mile” could potentially destroy Stewart’s championship chances if he has a run like he did when the series last visited Dover in June, where he started 29th and finished 69 laps down in 25th after getting caught up in a 12-car accident on lap 10 of the 400-lap race.
But if there ever was a team that could rally from such a performance, it’s Stewart and the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 squad of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), for they’ve been rallying all season.
After enduring four straight late-summer finishes of 19th or worse, Stewart has rattled off three straight top-10s. A strong fourth-place finish at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway secured Stewart’s spot in the top-10 and seeded him third in the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Stewart earned a sixth-place finish in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and followed it up with a solid seventh-place finish last Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
Now, Dover looms again. It’s the third race of the Chase, and Stewart enters it with a good bit of trepidation. But his team’s uncanny ability to rally, as demonstrated in recent weeks and last year when they won the Sprint Cup championship from the ninth Chase seed, has made them battle-tested in the face of adversity.
As the three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion (2002, 2005 and 2011), Stewart knows that titles are hard-earned, and with 14 years of Sprint Cup experience in his pocket, he fully expects Dover to test the resolve of him and his race team. But for a team that’s been tested all season long, it’s just another performance review.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Every driver says that Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway is the wild-card track in the Chase, because anything can happen there. But it seems every driver has another track on the Chase schedule where they feel a little vulnerable. Is Dover that track for you? “Dover has been the track where we’ve struggled the most, so I think that’s the one we have to look at and say, ‘This is one that we have to figure out and do better if we’re going to have a shot at this.’ We have to survive there.”
When you have a day where you’re struggling, how important is it to make something out of nothing? “It can be the difference between sitting at the head table and finishing third or fourth in points. You’re not going to have 10 perfect days. You’re going to have at least one day that’s going to be a little more challenging than the rest. It’s the team that can overcome that and rebound and make the most of it that’s going to salvage that day. It can be the difference between two or three spots at the end of the Chase.”
How comparable is this year to last year when you won the championship? “I don’t even know if last year at this point if we felt like we had a great thing going on. We had had so much bad luck leading into the Chase that one race win at Chicago didn’t really make us feel like we had just all of a sudden turned everything around. Definitely after Loudon it felt better, but then we went to the third race in the Chase at Dover and we were back to reality. We ran 25th. So, I think it’s a scenario where you go back and you’re realistic about it. You’ve got to take it one week at a time. You know that 65 percent of the things that go on during the race are out of your control, so you just try to control the 35 percent that you can control and take it from there.”
Everything seems amplified in the Chase. For those competing in the Chase, is there such a thing as “Chase Mode”? “I think there is a Chase mode, but I don’t think it’s necessarily any different than what you normally do. You just are taking that extra little time, and those guys, when they’re going through their checklists, are checking things twice sometimes in some categories to where they probably don’t need to, but it’s not a bad idea. You realize that if something goes wrong and something happens what the consequences are, and how much one bad race means now versus the first 26 weeks of the year. You know you’re trying to do as much as you can to keep a bad day from happening.”
There seems to be a separation between the top-six and the bottom-six in the 12-driver Chase. How do you approach these next eight weeks to ensure you stay in championship contention? “One day at a time like we’ve done for 32 years of our racing career. The philosophy of how to win races and championships doesn’t change from week to week. You do the same thing. It starts on Friday and you take it one day at a time.”
Dover’s surface is concrete. Do you have to alter your driving style when you race on concrete? “I don’t think you drive it any differently. But because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would. There are seams in Dover’s surface and places where they’ve cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there, the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that’s constantly changing. But it’s one of those places where you really can’t change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It’s just a matter of finding the package that’s right for that racetrack. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track – either the car is going to be tight or it’s going to be loose.”
Dover is a pretty unique track being that it’s a high-banked, 1-mile concrete oval. How do you approach it? “Dover is a track that is kind of a two-phase deal. It’s easy to get your car too tight in the center (of the corner) trying to get it to drive up off the corner nice, and it seems like if you get it to rotate through the corner, then it’s way loose off. Those are the two things that you really battle there. It’s the sacrifice of where do you want to be a little bit off to accomplish having a balanced car.”
Source: Stewart-Haas Racing