The Man at The Glen
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Tony Stewart is so good at the relatively niche art of road racing that he might as well add a few umlauts to his name, at least for this weekend as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series invades the 11-turn, 2.45-mile road course that is Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
For years, road racing was considered a European hallmark, where Formula One reigns supreme and oval racetracks are vastly outnumbered by the twists and turns of the continent’s seemingly endless supply of road courses. Drivers with such names as Lewis, Jenson, Nigel, Mika, Sebastian, Kimi and Fernando are most often thought of as the premiere road-course talent.
But here in the good, ol’ U.S. of A, it’s a guy named Tony who reigns supreme, as Stewart’s five Sprint Cup wins at The Glen suggest.
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing comes from working-class roots in Columbus, Ind., yet he possesses otherworldly driving skills that would put such Formula One champions as Mika Häkkinen (1998-1999) and Kimi Räikkönen (2007) to the test if they dared cross the Atlantic to compete at The Glen as their Formula One predecessors did from 1961 through 1980.
Since 1999 when Stewart began racing “tin-tops” at Watkins Glen as a Sprint Cup rookie, he’s collected the most wins of any driver in Sprint Cup. His first win came in 2002, with subsequent trips to victory lane in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009.
In his 13 career Sprint Cup starts at The Glen, Stewart has only three finishes worse than seventh – 26th in 2001, 11th in 2003 and 27th in 2011. He has an average start of 6.2 and an average finish of 7.1.
Bolstering Stewart’s legend at The Glen is his success at the Sprint Cup Series’ other road course venue in Sonoma, Calif. There, Stewart has two wins, three second-place finishes, five top-fives and nine top-10s in his 14 career Sprint Cup starts, giving him an average finish of 10.9.
Tally it all up and Stewart has seven road-course wins and only four finishes lower than 15th – 26th at Watkins Glen in 2001, 28th at Sonoma in 2006, 39th at Sonoma in 2011 and 27th at Watkins Glen in 2011. His average road-course finish is ninth, which is due in large part to having recorded only one DNF (Did Not Finish) in his 26 career road-course races and earning a lap completion rate of 99.2 percent.
Adding fuel to Smoke’s fire is that he comes into Watkins Glen with a string of gritty finishes. The three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion has scored seven top-12s in the last eight races – five of which were top-fives, including a win July 7 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. All of those drives have been hard earned, as Stewart’s average start was 23rd, but he constantly rallied to score an average finish of 8.4.
Among those rallies was the June 24 visit to the road course in Sonoma, where Stewart qualified 24th and then muscled his way to second place before the checkered flag dropped. The same Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy that Stewart wheeled at Sonoma will be underneath him this weekend at The Glen, where Stewart plans to finish one spot higher than he did in Sonoma.
A win at The Glen would give Stewart four wins on the season and sole possession of the No. 1 seed in the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Currently, Stewart shares the top spot with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, both of whom are three-time winners this season.
Stewart’s multiple victories allow him to forget about points and go for even more wins. He’s a lock to qualify for his eighth Chase, where each regular-season wins carries three bonus points to start the 10-race Chase. It’s a margin Stewart didn’t have in 2011, when he entered the Chase winless yet rallied to score a record-setting five wins to take his third Sprint Cup championship.
Intent on defending that title, Stewart is looking for another championship ring in 2012, and a win in Sunday’s Finger Lakes 355k at The Glen could very well give bring some more bling to his fingers when the Sprint Cup season culminates Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How do you gain momentum going into the Chase, and then sustain that momentum once you’re in the Chase?
“You just have to keep running well. You have to keep going and doing what you’re doing each week. You have to be really good and consistent in the Chase, and if you can do that for 10 straight weeks, you have a shot no matter how many bonus points you had to start with.”
You’re a 14-year veteran of the Sprint Cup Series. How have you seen road racing evolve?
“There are just more and more drivers that are getting better and better at it. It’s actually pretty cool to see how many guys just keep getting better and better every year. It’s starting to be just as competitive as the ovals. There are really good guys every time. It used to be you could count on probably four or five guys that realistically had a shot to win on the road courses, and now you’re kind of in the same boat as you are on a regular weekend. If anybody gets it, they can win. So, the drivers have definitely picked their pace up.”
As the competition level has risen, have teams placed more emphasis on the road courses?
“If you look at VIR (Virginia International Raceway) and Road Atlanta, you see all the teams go there to test. I think that shows how much emphasis the teams are putting into road-course racing. You know that with the points format you have 26 weeks to get you in the deal and you’ve got to be good at both of those road courses (Sonoma and Watkins Glen). That’s two opportunities to get yourself in a wild card position and two opportunities to gain points. So, the teams are taking it just as serious as they do any of the other events.”
Does the success you’ve had at Watkins Glen give you added confidence, perhaps more so than at other tracks?
“It’s a race that we always look forward to. We’ve had a lot of success there and it’s just fun. It’s like taking Sonoma and just multiplying the speed times three. It’s just a lot faster track. It still has the same elevation changes, but you’re just running a lot quicker. Both Sonoma and Watkins Glen are two places on the schedule that we really enjoy coming to.
“When you’ve won five races, it gives you that confidence that you know how to win, and know what you have to do to get to victory lane. I know what feel I need when we get here. It’s just a matter of going out and practicing and putting yourself in that position.”
What’s made you so successful on road courses, and Watkins Glen in particular?
“I don’t know. I mean it’s kind of that way with Sonoma, too. We seem to have taken to the road racing side of it fairly well and we just have had good luck with it. I don’t know that there’s a secret to it, necessarily. I think a lot of it is when we get here we look forward to being here. There are some drivers that don’t look forward to the road-course races, and with us, we actually look forward to it. We like the change in pace and doing something different for a weekend. That’s something we always look forward to and it kind of gets us boosted up for the weekend.
“I like it when it gets hot and slick there. It kind of plays into our hands. This is the part of the year when the temperatures are at their highest, and we tend to pick up. I think we can handle the slicker conditions sometimes a little better than some of the guys around us. A lot of guys panic because they know it’s going to get slick. I get excited when I know it’s going to get slick.”
You’ve won seven road course races altogether – two at Sonoma and five at The Glen. Does success at one venue transfer to the other?
“The two tracks, while both road courses, are still pretty different. At Watkins Glen you don’t have to finesse the throttle near as much as you do at Sonoma. When you get the car turned, you can get in the gas and then stay in the gas. Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma. I think there are the same amounts of passing opportunities, but because of the speeds that you’re able to run at The Glen, brakes become a much bigger factor than I think they are at Sonoma. It’s pretty much a horsepower track. It just happens to be in the form of a road course. Sonoma has a lot less grip in the racetrack. You have to really be careful with the throttle there, and that puts more of the race in the driver’s hands. If anything, Sonoma is probably more technical than Watkins Glen because there’s hardly any time where you get a chance to rest. You’re always either shifting or accelerating or braking or turning or doing something. At Watkins Glen, at least on the frontstretch and on the backstretch, there are three straightaways where you get a little bit of time to take a break. Watkins Glen seems to be more in the crew’s hands and the engine builder’s hands. Obviously, there’s still a job that I need to do in the racecar, but I’m relying on the equipment and the crew a lot more at Watkins Glen.”
Because road-course racing is such a different discipline, how do you approach it?
“I’ve just always liked it. I won a national championship racing go-karts on road courses, so the concept of what it took to win races on road courses wasn’t totally unknown to me, but driving cars with suspension, and definitely driving cars that you had to shift, that’s something that came relatively easy to me, and still comes easy to me as far as knowing how to synchronize the gears without having to use the help of the clutch. Even in the sports cars that I’ve driven with guys who have driven road courses all their life, I’ve gotten out of the car and the crew has torn the gearboxes apart and said that the dog rings in my transmission look better than when those guys are done with a transmission. There’s just something about the shifting side of it that’s been really natural to me, and it’s fun. I like having a different discipline to race on. I like having the opportunity to do something twice a year that we don’t get a shot at doing very often. I take the same amount of pride that someone like Ron Fellows or Scott Pruett does when they come into a road-course race. I take that same pride in running well that they do in these cars. I don’t look at it from the standpoint that it’s a negative weekend. I look at it as a positive, that it’s something we enjoy and I feel like that gives us a leg up on most of the guys we race with at these tracks.”
How much do you look forward to racing on the road courses?
“I love the two road courses. It’s nice because it kind of breaks up the monotony of the season. We do the same thing every week and it’s nice to have two road course races thrown in the mix that give us a chance to do something a little bit off-center for all of us. It’s kind of like the ‘Prelude’ with no dirt added, unless you drive off, which a lot of us do. We still get a dirt aspect in it, I guess.”
Source: Stewart-Haas Racing