TONY STEWART History to Be Made at Historic Darlington? KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 7, 2009) -- It's been 372 races since the last driver/owner won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race -- Ricky Rudd on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Many ...
History to Be Made at Historic Darlington?
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 7, 2009) -- It's been 372 races since the last driver/owner won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race -- Ricky Rudd on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Many driver/owners have come and gone since, but the newest club member is intent on ending that steak while continuing another, namely earning a victory in every season since his rookie year in 1999.
Tony Stewart is in his 11th season as a Sprint Cup driver, but first as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing, the team he co-owns with Haas Automation -- the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world -- and re-shaped from what used to be Haas CNC Racing.
Stewart began putting his mark on his most daring racing endeavor before last season even ended. The 33-time Sprint Cup race winner brought in high-profile sponsors for his own effort via Old Spice, Office Depot and Burger King. He hired a teammate in Ryan Newman and quickly added the U.S. Army as his primary backer. He brought in Darian Grubb from Hendrick Motorsports to be his crew chief and picked up Tony Gibson from Dale Earnhardt Inc., to be Newman's crew chief. And to oversee it all, he lured Bobby Hutchens, a 21-year-and-counting NASCAR veteran who was a part of four championships with the late Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, to be the director of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing.
With Stewart's 10-year tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing and Newman's seven-year stint at Penske Racing, five corporate methodologies have been melded into one to put both Stewart's No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS and Newman's No. 39 U.S. Army/Haas Automation Chevrolet Impala SS in the top-10 in points 10 races into the 36-race schedule.
And it's Stewart who's leading the charge, as he's third in points, just 39 behind series leader and four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
With four top-fives and seven top-10s so far this season -- with all of those top-fives coming in the last five races, including second-place finishes April 18 at Phoenix International Raceway and last Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway -- Stewart is proving that a driver/owner can succeed in NASCAR's brave new world.
Now, the question is, when will Stewart win?
That was a question the two-time Sprint Cup champion faced last year when he rolled into Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, site of Saturday night's Southern 500.
The 60-year-old Darlington was, at the time, one of four venues where Stewart had yet to win a Sprint Cup race. But on Friday night of Mother's Day weekend 2008, Stewart utterly dominated the NASCAR Nationwide Series race by leading three times for a race-high 90 laps to score his first win of any kind at Darlington. It wasn't a Sprint Cup win, but it was a win at one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, as Darlington's egg-shaped, 1.366-mile layout has produced such monikers as "Too Tough To Tame" and the "Lady in Black."
For once, Stewart tamed Darlington, albeit for 147 laps of a Nationwide Series race. But as he returns to Darlington for this year's Southern 500, Stewart is keen on taming the track for all 367 laps, and notching his 34th career Sprint Cup win, but first as a driver/owner.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Both you and Ryan Newman finished among the top-five last week at Richmond, and now you're both among the top-10 in points. Talk about where you think Stewart-Haas Racing is right now in terms of momentum going into Darlington.
"Obviously after my second-place run and Ryan's fourth-place run last week at Richmond, it's the most momentum this team has ever had. We're going into Darlington and both of us are excited about the track. We're on a high right now, coming off our best finishes as an organization, so we're excited about everything. Everybody in the whole organization is excited and we're looking forward to it."
Even though it was a Nationwide Series race and not a Sprint Cup race, how did it feel to finally win for the first time at Darlington?
"With the rich heritage and history at Darlington -- to win there and be the first guy to win after they resurfaced it -- it's a feeling that's hard to describe. It's just cool to win at Darlington. You think back to guys like David Pearson who were so good there. This series is just so deep in history, and this is one of those tracks where the history goes as deep as NASCAR does. To finally get a win at Darlington was a huge honor for me."
Does that win help in any way for what you wan to accomplish when you return for this weekend's Southern 500?
"It doesn't hurt. Just because you won in a Nationwide Series car doesn't guarantee success in the Cup car. We still have to go out and do our job on the Cup side. The cars drive totally different. We've got a lot more horsepower with the Cup cars than the Nationwide cars have now, so the driving style is different there. But still, we had a good run with the Cup car and we had a good run with the Nationwide car, and I think that, as much as anything, gives you confidence coming back this time."
Why is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver's cap?
"A lot of it has to do with the history of the track. If you can say you won a race at Darlington -- that's a feather in your cap. That's something to be proud of, knowing that you're in a group of drivers with names like Pearson and Petty -- the pioneers of our sport who you hear stories about the races they ran there and the races they won there.
"Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. You don't see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it's a track that's like winning at Bristol (Tenn.). It's the same type of feeling -- knowing that you conquered something that's very hard to obtain."
One of your old USAC T-shirts read "New Blood From an Old School." In terms of you racing at Darlington, is that a shirt that could be sold again?
"I think that shirt would be appropriate at Darlington. Some people aren't that deep into the history of the sport, but there are a lot of us who do appreciate the past. And I guess for me, being able to race at Darlington is a way of preserving the past."
Coming from an open-wheel background, was Darlington a place that even open-wheel guys had respect for simply because of the track's history?
"Absolutely. As much as we know about the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I think people underestimate how much we know about Darlington and the history of that track, and how hard it is to win races there. I guess that's why a Sprint Cup win at Darlington is something that's really important to me."
Last year was your 16th trip to Darlington, but first on new pavement. How was it?
"Darlington is very, very fast and it's very, very smooth. They did an awesome job.
Because the new pavement has increased speeds, does aerodynamics play a bigger role at Darlington?
"Aerodynamics plays a role everywhere we go nowadays. Martinsville might be the only track where aerodynamics don't really play a role anymore. So even at a place like Darlington, you've got to make sure you keep the fenders straight because you need every bit of downforce you can get."
The Darlington race is the night before Mother's Day, and your mom -- Pam Boas -- will be one of the many mothers who will serve as grand marshals for Saturday night's race. What kind of support has your mom given you during your racing career?
"My whole family supported me, basically. Mom was a little more reserved and a little more quiet about it than my father was. My father was kind of the ring leader. He was the one who made all the decisions on what we did and didn't do. While she was a little bit reserved, she was, and still is, one of my biggest supporters."
How would you describe your mom?
"She's a pretty patient woman. Anyone that could actually raise me and not want to kill me or kick me out of the house has got to be a very patient person. That's my mom. She's a very patient lady with a great heart and she's really good with people."