Messin’ with Texas
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (April 5, 2011) – Despite the warning carried on bumper stickers slapped on the backs of countless pickup trucks and cars throughout the state of Texas, Tony Stewart enjoys messin’ with Texas. In fact, the “Don’t Mess with Texas” mantra might as well be an invitation for the driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Stewart has been messing around in Texas for nearly two decades, first harassing drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series and now drivers in the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
It all began in November 1995 when Stewart was tabbed to pilot A.J. Foyt’s Indy car for a commercial shoot at Texas World Speedway in College Station. And while those laps were a long way from an actual race, the then 24-year-old Stewart parlayed his time with Foyt – the racing icon for whom he is named after – into a full-fledged drive in the IndyCar Series that brought Stewart back to Texas in 1997.
Before Stewart became synonymous with stock cars, he was the poster child for what was then known as the Indy Racing League (IRL). In his three IRL races at Texas Motor Speedway, Stewart started on the pole twice (June 1997 and June 1998) and second once (September 1998). And while he never finished an IRL race at the 1.5-mile oval – engine failures hampered him in June 1997 and September 1998, and mechanical woes sidelined him in June 1998 – Stewart still led 208 of a possible 624 laps (33.4 percent).
The Texas trophies he was unable to attain in Indy cars were found in stock cars.
In November 2006 – Stewart’s 10th trip to Texas as a Sprint Cup driver – he dominated, leading eight times for a race-high 278 laps en route to victory. Serving as a precursor to that win was Stewart’s drive seven months earlier when the four-race International Race of Champions (IROC) visited Texas. Stewart won that April race and then followed it with another victory on the road course at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. With a third-place finish in the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stewart secured his first IROC championship – the last in the 30-year history of IROC.
Its memories like those, along with new-age loop data tallied by NASCAR, that makes Texas a welcome venue for Stewart.
In the last 12 Sprint Cup races at Texas, Stewart has amassed the best driver rating (104.5), the best average running position (8.6), the best average green-flag speed (173.177 mph) and the most laps spent in the top-15 (3,347 laps or 83.3 percent). All of which augment his more traditional statistics – one pole, one win, four top-fives, 10 top-10s and 542 laps in 18 career Sprint Cup starts.
It’s obvious the two-time Sprint Cup champion enjoys kicking butt in the Lone Star State, and with the trophy for Sunday’s Samsung Mobile 500 being an exquisitely carved wooden cowboy boot, it’s the perfect metaphor for Stewart to put his foot on the throat of his competition and mess with Texas yet again.
You have to be comfortable or you’re not going to go fast.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
In your last 12 races at Texas you’ve earned the best driver rating, had the best average running position, the best average green-flag speed and have run in the top-15 a series-best 83.3 percent of the time. How have you been able to adapt to Texas’ layout?
“I’ve found that you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy who misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn’t make a mistake and you’ve got a little better car than they do, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track’s a little wider, so you have more room to get a run on a guy. But, as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car’s handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake, you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up.”
Texas is a track where you’ve been consistently good. Does that make you more comfortable?
“Yes, absolutely. It puts you in a positive frame of mind when you go to a track knowing that you’ve run well there before.”
With a pole, a win, four top-fives and 10 top-10s in 18 career Sprint Cup starts at Texas, how comfortable are you there?
“I’ve always liked Texas. I’ve been there clear back in my Indy car days in ’97. The fans in Texas and the people that come to Texas Motor Speedway are really appreciative of the drivers and the teams. They’re just really passionate about their racing. They have a great promoter with Eddie Gossage out there. It’s just a fun track, it’s a fun weekend, and it’s a place that we run really, really fast at. It’s a fast track. That makes it one on the schedule that you look forward to because you know you’re going to get to let your legs stretch out, so to speak, and run some quick lap times.”
Before you raced at Texas in a stock car, you raced there in an Indy car. What was the difference?
“The Indy car was nothing like driving a stock car. You could go anywhere on the track with the Indy car that you wanted to, and you could run wide-open while doing it. It was as easy as riding down the Interstate, whereas with a stock car, you’re not off the gas very long, but you do have to lift. With the track being so line-sensitive, it’s really important that you’re doing the same thing every lap, and making sure you’re very consistent in how you’re driving the car.”
What is it, specifically, that makes you so comfortable at Texas?
“You have to be comfortable or you’re not going to go fast. The more comfortable I am, the faster we go.
“This track, the grooves have moved around, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve seen the track start getting wider and, when Eddie (Gossage, track president) took the initiative and got rid of the bumps in (turns) one and two, it made it to where you can move around on the racetrack and where you can run the top side or the bottom side. It’s nice from a driver’s perspective to be able to have that flexibility behind the steering wheel, knowing that if your car’s not driving exactly the way you want it to, you can move around the racetrack and find a spot the car likes better.
“Any time you put more seasons on a racetrack, the better it gets because it seems like the pavement wears out on the bottom and it makes it to where you can run the top and be fast and you can run the bottom and be fast. It makes the whole racetrack, speed-wise, about the same, versus when they pave a racetrack and the only groove is right on the bottom. The fastest way is the shortest way, because it all has the same amount of grip, so the shorter distance is faster. Every year that we come here, I think the racing just gets better and better, as far as being able to move around on the racetrack and guys not having to just follow each other and get stuck behind each other. You can actually pass. You can race. You can get away from guys if your car’s fast.”
A lot of drivers talk about turn two at Texas where it feels like the banking falls out from underneath them. Can you describe that sensation?
“It does. The entry and exit of these corners, they’re very abrupt as far as the banking. When you turn in the corner, it’s very abrupt getting in, and falls off very quickly. The reason for that, when they built Texas Motor Speedway, they intended to have the Indy cars race on the apron. That’s why the apron is so wide at Texas. The Indy cars were not originally meant to run on the banking. That’s why the banking on the entry of the corner and exit falls off so fast, so the cars could come from the straightaway from the apron and back up with a smooth transition from the bottom. It makes it a different challenge than what we have at Charlotte or Atlanta because of that. It does make it a lot more challenging to get your car set up for it. You can’t relax on the entry and you can’t relax on the exit of the corner. A lot of times it’s hard to get your car secure on the entry because you don’t have that banking to hold it. Once you get in the corner, it seems like it’s all right. Same thing happens on the exit. Turn two is the tighter of the two exits of the racetrack. You’re still trying to finish the corner there and you have to keep tugging on the steering wheel and, at the same time, make sure you don’t lose the back (of the car). It definitely falls out from under you. When it does, you have to make sure your car is tight enough to make it through that transition.”