TONY STEWART Toughing it Out at the Track "Too Tough to Tame" KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 6, 2010) - Heading into a venue with the moniker "Too Tough to Tame" always proves daunting, but it's even more so when you've dropped 10 point positions in the...
Toughing it Out at the Track "Too Tough to Tame"
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 6, 2010) - Heading into a venue with the moniker "Too Tough to Tame" always proves daunting, but it's even more so when you've dropped 10 point positions in the last five races because your average finish in that span is 24th. Such is the plight of Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot team of Stewart-Haas Racing as they enter round 11 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
It's been a tough stretch of racing for Stewart and Co., for their one bright spot since finishing second in round five at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway came April 19 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. There, they took the pole and led five times for 74 laps and had a shot at the win before getting collected in a late-race accident that left them 32nd.
While it was a disappointing result, they could hang their 10-gallon hat on the fact that they at least ran well. It's a run like that, sans the wrecked racecar, of course, that Stewart and his Darian Grubb-led team need Saturday night in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington.
They're toughing it out as they scour their data looking for the finite details that make the difference between finishing first and 31st. And at the track "Too Tough to Tame," their tenacious drive could pay dividends.
The quirky and venerable 1.366-mile oval is a challenge, for its tight confines and egg-shaped circumference force drivers to run right along the outside wall. The oft-heard "Darlington Stripe" is famous because so many drivers pick one up on the right side of their car after scraping the track's old-school red-and-white walls just 100 miles into the 500-mile race.
It's that kind of challenge where Stewart and Grubb tend to rise. After all, last year was their first season together as a part of the newly minted Stewart-Haas Racing, and Stewart, who had never finished better than fourth in 16 previous Darlington starts - a result that came way back in the 2001 Southern 500 - brought home an impressive third-place finish.
The top-three effort came as the two were on their way to doing the impossible - winning with Stewart wearing the hats of both driver and owner. No driver/owner had won a Sprint Cup race since Ricky Rudd on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, and no driver/owner had led the point standings since Alan Kulwicki clinched the championship on Nov. 15, 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Yet, Stewart kicked both of those records to the curb when he took the point lead after the May 31 race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway and then put an exclamation point to his championship standing by winning the very next Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
Considering that Stewart overcame all that, his current five-race skid is nothing. Nonetheless, no one wants to see it extend to six races, and Darlington provides the next best opportunity to show the "Lady in Black" - another Darlington catchphrase - that Stewart is the "Man of the House."
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Last year was your first as a driver/owner and it was an incredible season, as top-10s quickly became top-fives which quickly became wins. It was a charmed season. This year is anything but, as you're coming off five straight races where you've finished outside the top-15 and you're now 15th in points. Are you still trying to identify what you need to do to turn things around this year?
"Yes. It's hard. There's nothing easy about what we do. You're competing against 41 other guys each week and it's not always clear-cut what the right answer is and where the problem lies, but that's what makes it so rewarding when you do have things going your way and you've got stuff figured out. We're just kind of in a slump right now. Darian (Grubb, crew chief) is working really hard. I know Bobby Hutchens (competition director) is trying everything. Ryan Newman (teammate) and Tony Gibson (crew chief, No. 39 car) are trying to help us as much as they can to get us turned around. We're definitely struggling right now. The thing I think I'm really proud of is - the positive out of the negative - is that the morale of the team and the organization is still very, very high. Darian's got his head up. I've got my head up. We're not proud of how we're running right now. We know we're better than that, but we're going to get it sorted out and get going again."
It may not be in Sprint Cup, but you have won at Darlington. Even though it was a NASCAR Nationwide Series race, how did it feel to finally win for the first time there?
"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 want 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. 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."
Darlington was repaved back in 2007. Because the still relatively new pavement has increased speeds, do aerodynamics play a bigger role at Darlington?
"Aerodynamics play 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."