Tony Stewart will be turning left and right this weekend at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, but since this time last year, his career has come full circle.
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – A year ago, Stewart was absent from The Glen. His streak of consecutive starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ended at 521 when in the wee hours of Aug. 5, 2013, an accident in a sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa, left him with a broken right tibia and fibula.
Stewart’s season was over, and he did not return to a racecar until Feb. 14, 2014 when practice for the Sprint Unlimited began at 5 p.m. EST at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. #StandWithSmoke was the mantra upon Stewart’s return, and it’s appropriate that #StandWithSmoke reappears in Stewart’s return to Watkins Glen.
Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma
Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, is 19th in points with only five races remaining before the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins. Fifty-three points and six drivers separate Stewart from the top-16 cutoff necessary to make the Chase.
While Stewart could get in on points, a win would ensure a Chase berth, as any driver among the top-30 in points who wins during the 26-race regular season earns a coveted spot in the 16-driver Chase.
Watkins Glen is more than just the next-best opportunity for Stewart; it’s perhaps the best opportunity for Stewart to win during this five-race stretch before the Chase.
Stewart is the winningest Sprint Cup driver at The Glen with five victories. His seven top-twos and 10 top-10s in 14 career starts at the 2.45-mile road course gives him an average finishing position of 7.9. Stewart’s 225 laps led at The Glen are second only to Jeff Gordon, who has led 233 laps at Watkins Glen. The next best driver in laps led at Watkins Glen is Kyle Busch with 188.
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...
Bolstering these traditional statistics is NASCAR’s loop data, which provides analysis of a driver’s performance profile in the last nine races at Watkins Glen. Stewart ranks first or second in 10 of the 14 loop data categories. He has the best driver rating (120.4), the best average running position (5.661), the most laps spent in the top-15 (678 laps or 93.6 percent), has the most quality passes (195) and is the fastest driver in traffic (118.844 mph). Stewart has the second-most laps led (145 laps or 20 percent), the second-most fastest-laps run (106), is the second-fastest driver early in a run (120.573 mph), has the second-fastest green-flag speed (120.465 mph) and is the second-fastest driver on restarts.
All that speed at Watkins Glen bodes well for Stewart, especially since the regular season is speeding toward its conclusion.
A win puts Stewart into the Chase, and it’s appropriate that Rush Truck Centers is on his No. 14 Chevy SS, as Stewart is in a rush to make the Chase for the ninth time in his career since the inception of the Chase in 2004. A subsidiary of Rush Enterprises, Inc., Rush Truck Centers is the premier service solutions provider to the commercial vehicle industry and the United States’ largest network of truck and bus dealerships, representing industry-leading brands. With more than 100 vehicle centers strategically located in high-traffic areas or near major highways, Rush Truck Centers operate as one-stop centers offering an integrated approach to the needs of its customers.
Watkins Glen could very well serve as Stewart’s solutions provider. Winless thus far in 2014, a win at The Glen provides his solution to the Chase. And after missing the Chase last year due to the broken leg that kept him out for the rest of the season, Stewart can stand tall at The Glen in 2014, preferably in victory lane. It’s time to #StandWithSmoke.
Being on the outside looking in at the Chase is a rare position for you. With five races to go before the 16-driver Chase field is set, what is your mindset? “It’s nerve-wracking. You would love to have two or three wins under your belt and not have to be worrying about it, but it’s part of it. But if it were easy, then it wouldn’t mean anything.
“Where we are still doesn’t change anything as far as our approach goes. We’ve got to do the same things, do it the same way. You can’t over-drive the car. You can’t try harder than what you’re already trying. You just have to believe in yourself, believe in your team and not let up.”
Do you care how you get into the Chase, as there’s still a chance you could earn a spot based on points? “To me, it doesn’t matter how you get in, it’s just getting in. The important thing is a) getting there and then b) making the cut, and then each cut after that. We all knew at the start of the season what it was going to take to get in, it’s just a matter of getting there.”
You’ve enjoyed a lot of success at The Glen. What parts of the racetrack provide the best opportunities to pass? “Anywhere you can take it. I mean, it’s literally just wherever there’s an opening. The end of the frontstretch and the end of the backstretch, where there are long breaking zones, those are good places.”
What’s the most treacherous part of Watkins Glen? “The Bus Stop is probably the hardest because it involves such quick movements – both right and left, and then left and back right. If you get out of shape because something happens, or if you go too deep in the corner, or you wheel hop, or if you mess the entry up, it just throws the timing of all the rest of the quick corners there in that short section off. You can really mess yourself up if you miss the corners there.”
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 at 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.”
Does road-course racing show off a driver’s versatility? “I think so. I’m not saying that if you don’t win at a road course you’re not a good driver, by any means. You just see drivers rise to the top there and you see drivers have great performances that ultimately end up defining them.”
Rush Truck Centers is back as a primary sponsor on your racecar. How did that relationship come about? “We’ve been doing business with Rush Truck Centers for years. It’s an established relationship that has a much higher profile thanks to Rush Truck Centers becoming a primary sponsor with our team. Rush Truck Centers keeps our trucks and transporters up and running, and you could argue those are the most important parts of our race team. Without them, our cars never get to the racetrack. The employees of Rush Truck Centers are as detail-oriented as we are, and they play a critical role in the success of our race team.”