TONY STEWART Getting to the Point at Bristol KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Aug. 17, 2010) -- While not quite locked into the Chase for the Championship, Tony Stewart appears poised to join the elite Chase field for the sixth time since the 10-race Chase ...
Getting to the Point at Bristol
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Aug. 17, 2010) -- While not quite locked into the Chase for the Championship, Tony Stewart appears poised to join the elite Chase field for the sixth time since the 10-race Chase became reality in 2004.
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing is fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings with a 300-point buffer over 13th-place Mark Martin, the first driver on the outside looking in at the 12-driver Chase, which will be decided in the next three races. With a maximum of 161 points that could be lost in a single race, it would take a catastrophe for Stewart to topple out of the top-12 when the Chase field is set following the conclusion of the Sept. 11 race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
But that sort of thinking doesn't even enter the mind of Stewart, a two-time Sprint Cup champion who is the only driver to win a title under the old, season-long championship format (2002) and the current-era Chase (2005). To boot, Stewart is the last Sprint Cup driver not named Jimmie Johnson to win the series championship, for Johnson has taken the crown the last four years.
Instead, Stewart's thinking is this -- win and the points take care of themselves. It's a mantra that has obviously worked in his 11 previous Sprint Cup seasons, for Stewart has never finished lower than 11th in points, and his average point finish is fifth. That number -- buoyed by his two championship efforts -- are due in large part to his 37 career victories, but also to his 150 career top-fives and 243 career top-10s. And we shouldn't forget that his 10,806 career laps led total has allowed him to acquire an astounding 1,250 bonus points.
While we're on the subject of points, if Stewart leaves Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway -- site of Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race -- with a 391-point advantage over the 13th-place driver in the standings, he will clinch his spot in the Chase. Considering that Stewart has scored 1,500 points in the last 10 races -- only two shy of championship point leader Kevin Harvick, who leads the series in this category -- it would surprise no one if Stewart picked up the necessary points and locked himself into the Chase. After all, he's rallied from 13th in points to fourth in that span.
And it would surprise no one if Stewart earned that berth by winning at Bristol. The Columbus, Ind.-native has been on a tear leading into the .533-mile bullring, notching 10 top-10 finishes in the last 12 races -- two of which were runner-up results. Yet, 23 races into the 2010 Sprint Cup season, Stewart is winless, despite leading 155 laps.
But Bristol is the site of a second-place result in March, and it's also where he already has a win -- the 2001 Night Race. And in his 23 previous visits to the East Tennessee oval, Stewart has logged 1,353 laps led -- fourth most among active Sprint Cup drivers, and the most with fewer than 600 starts.
Stewart's hunger for a victory, and the 10 bonus points that will be added to his Chase tally if he ends Saturday night's 500-lap contest first, are the driving forces behind his 3,400-pound Chevy Impala. Yes, his Hendrick-built V-8 puts out over 850 horsepower, but on a track that's been likened to piloting a jet inside a gymnasium, hunger and moxie often times win out at Bristol, and those are two tools Stewart has in his arsenal when the green flag drops on the Irwin Tools Night Race.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Now that the Chase for the Championship seems to be taking shape, have you thought about a strategy to use during the final 10-race stretch to the finish?
"If you win races the points take care of themselves. Every week when we go to the track we're going to try to win the race, and if we can't win we'll finish as high as we can and get as many points as we can. Once we do that, the points will just have to be what they are."
With the pressure upon some drivers to make the cut for the Chase, will it make Bristol an even more aggressive race?
"I don't think it'll be any different. I still think when it comes to racing, guys are simply just racing. I think at the end of the day they look at the point standings, but for the most part, the whole time you're out there you're worried about winning the race or doing as well as you can. I really don't think people's mindsets will change."
You had another strong run last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, where you finished sixth to log your 10th top-10 finish in the last 12 races. With the Chase three races away, are you where you need to be, or is there still some ground you need to gain?
"We're still in a period of transition with this new car. What you find that works right now may work for only three or four weeks. The engineers are doing such a good job of continuing to find things with these cars that they're finding bigger chunks quicker. I think that's why we see spurts from different organizations.
"Do I feel like we're right where we need to be? Not exactly. Do I feel like we're gaining on it? Yes. I'm excited about the fact that I feel like we're looking up the hill and not looking back at where we're sliding to. So, I feel like we're gaining on it. I'm not sure we're exactly where we want to be yet, but right now we're making progress, and that's the progress that we want going into the Chase, versus last year where at this part of the season the wheels started falling off.
"I'm happy with the progress the team has made this year. It's easy to go from having a first year like we had last year that went so well for so long, and to have the disappointment this year of not running as well as we'd like. No one gave up or lost their enthusiasm or their drive, and that's something that I'm really proud, and that goes to my guys at our shop at Stewart-Haas over to the engine department at Hendrick and the chassis department there. I feel like they've continued to push hard. We've got a good group of guys that are really focused on what we're trying to accomplish."
Even though you're only in your second year as a car owner, how do you manage the inevitable peaks and valleys that come with running a top-tier Sprint Cup team?
"You're giving me way too much credit. I wish I was that smart to know how to do that. Richard Childress is a guy who's been able to figure out how to do it singlehandedly. And with that, I think that makes him one of the strongest car owners in the series. He's just an average guy that loves this sport and has poured his heart and soul into it. There have been a lot of valleys and at times there have been peaks, but even through when times aren't good he fights, and he won't give up, and that's what you have to do as a car owner at this level. Everything is great when things are going well. When times are tough is what shows you the true character of an organization. I think that's why Richard has been as successful as he has for so long -- because he's one of those guys that just will not stop and will not quit. He stays focused and knows how to get the job done."
Can you summarize your history at Bristol?
"Bristol is one of those places where you've got to have everything kind of go your way. If you have one hiccup, it's hard to recover from it. We've only won one race there and we've kind of been all over the board. It's been feast or famine for us. It's like if you have one problem in the first half of the race, it's hard to recover from it. It makes for a very long day. We've had more long days than good days."
How important is track position at a place like Bristol, where everything happens so quickly?
"It's really important. What you've got to keep in mind is that every time the competition gets closer, it makes it harder and harder to start further back and pass cars. If you're a half-second faster than the 20 cars in front of you, you're probably going to be able to work your way through. If you're half of a tenth of a second faster, it's a lot harder to make up those spots. With the sport and the competition level going up every week, passing is harder. That's why track position is so important. The thing about Bristol is that, at the end of the day, you still have to have a good-handling racecar. You can get good track position, but if you don't have a good car, you're not going to be able to hold onto it."