Standing Tall as the Bar Rises
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Feb. 9, 2011) -- Two championships. Thirty-nine wins. Twelve poles. One hundred and fifty-three top-five finishes. Two hundred and forty-seven top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart has accumulated in his 12 years as a full-time driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the last two of which have been as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing, where the pilot of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala has nabbed six point-paying wins and two poles.
But despite the impressive figures, the most pressing matter of the moment is readying for the 2011 Sprint Cup season. The wins, the poles and the accolades of years past don't mean much when another grueling, 36-race schedule looms ahead. For all intents and purposes, it's just another series of never-ending performance reviews.
In 2011, those performance reviews will be watched in earnest. Not just because it's Stewart who's the last Sprint Cup champion not named Jimmie Johnson, but because he continues to defy the odds as a driver/owner in today's NASCAR.
Not since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 when he won what was then the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship has a driver/owner accomplished what Stewart has, which is consistently win races and contend for championships.
When Stewart took the point lead on May 31, 2009, he became the first driver/owner in 556 races to lead the Sprint Cup championship standings. And when Stewart won a week later at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, he became the first driver/owner in 375 races to win a Sprint Cup race. Four point-paying wins and a Chase berth in 2009 segued to two point-paying victories and another Chase spot in 2010. All of which means expectations are high again in 2011.
In a sport where the bar is constantly being raised, Stewart always antes up. He's able to do so because of longtime support from Office Depot, currently celebrating 25 years as a leading global provider of office supplies and services, and newcomer Mobil 1, the world's leading synthetic motor oil brand. In NASCAR's brave new world, it's good to have world leaders on your side.
As a new season dawns with the advent of Daytona (Fla.) Speedweeks, Stewart and Co. are ready for the challenge. In 10 months when the checkered flag drops on the 2011 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 5-foot, 9-inch Stewart aims to stand tallest among his racing brethren by raising a championship trophy just as he did in 2002 and 2005.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
After two successful seasons as a driver/owner at NASCAR's highest level, are there a lot of expectations coming into this season?
"Always. That's what this industry is based off -- expectations. At the end of 2009 we looked at what we did right and what we did wrong so that we could improve ourselves. But I think we put too much emphasis on trying to take care of the things that we thought needed improving, and didn't pay enough attention to the things that we did right, because they were not good enough last year. Even the things we felt like we did right last year, we still have to build on those experiences. It's just about having more experience as an owner and knowing what we had in any of those areas isn't good enough anymore. We have to continue to grow.
What are your expectations in year three?
"Obviously, we want to go out and win a championship. That's definitely on top of the list. But the hard thing is, it's a very competitive sport, and you realize that even if we make our program five percent better, if everybody else makes theirs seven percent better, we're still behind. It's hard to predict what's going to happen. We just hope the hard work all of our guys have put forth all winter long is going to be good enough this year and put us that much farther ahead than anybody else."
Are you optimistic in what Stewart-Haas Racing can achieve?
"I think I'm realistic. When you sit down at the end of the year and evaluate what you did right and what you did wrong, even the things you did right last year are not necessarily going to be right this year, and that's the hard part. It's really hard to gauge where you're going to be and how successful you're going to be until you get around everybody else. A perfect example of that was Richard Childress Racing. Two years ago they were really behind, and then last year they were ahead of the game and were a factor every week. Everybody is going to make their programs better. It's about who makes the biggest gain and is that going to be enough to get you on top of the field?"
How much more comfortable are you this year than you were this time two years ago?
"The longer I'm in this role the more comfortable I get. You know, the one thing I learned from Joe Gibbs is that you hire the right people to do the right jobs. I can't run this race team by myself, but having guys like Bobby (Hutchens, director of competition) and Brett (Frood, executive vice president) upstairs and other key people in this organization -- they're the people I deal with. So, when there's a question, somebody has to have the answer to it. Knowing I can go to this group of people and get that answer is a big key. But just being able to communicate and keep our guys pumped up and recognize when they say, 'This is what we need to be better,' and figuring out how to make that work in the budget, that's probably the hardest thing."
When you look back on your sophomore year, how would you characterize it?
"We were happy to get Ryan (Newman, teammate) into victory lane for the first type with the organization, but we definitely did lose some performance on our side. We didn't win as many races, but we did finish about the same spot in pots. I felt like we maintained and didn't grow as much as we would've liked. I feel like that's where we need to put our emphasis on -- settle on the things we did right and fix the things that were a little below average. But we have to continue to grow the entire organization. What we did last year in areas that we did right is not going to be good enough this year. We're keeping that pressure on these guys to make that aspect of our program that much better."
At the end of the season when the checkered flag drops at Homestead, how will you determine if your season has been successful?
"Ultimately, it comes down to performance, but it's how you get there. It's seeing areas of your program that are growing, and sometimes those don't always show in the results at the end of the day. But, race teams are like any other business. It's a constant state of progress. I guarantee that you're not going to find anybody, even at the '48' shop (home to five-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson) who's going to be happy with where they are, and that's a team that's won five championships in a row. It's a constant state of progress that you're in and you're never going to get where you think you've got everything exactly where you want it. I think it's in evaluating where you are at the end of the year and how your program has grown. The hard part is everybody else's program is growing, too, so you have to figure out how to make your program grow faster than theirs to really see those results at the end of the day."
What's the next progression for Stewart-Haas Racing?
"We want to get back to where we were two years ago when we got both our cars (Nos. 14 and 39) in the Chase. We finished sixth and seventh in points the last two years, and that's definitely not where we want to be. It's making sure that we give me and Ryan (Newman, driver of the No. 39) the best opportunities we can, to not only win races and make the Chase, but to have an opportunity to win the Chase, too. We'll keep building this program and growing it to ensure the future of this team by making sure that we can go out and compete for races and championships."
After two years of being in the dual role of driver and owner, are you more laid back now?
"I'm more comfortable with it. I think going to the racetrack has really helped me understand NASCAR's perspective a lot better, and I feel like that's been really, really huge. A lot of times you don't understand why NASCAR does things, and I think when you're a car owner you realize that it's a different perspective than what you have as a driver, and that's helped. I'm comfortable in my role as an owner now.
"I get to know Gene (Haas, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing) more and more each year, and that makes me more and more comfortable each year, too, and we have the same group of guys that we have started with. I'm passionate about what we do. It's a lot of commitment. It takes a lot of time that we don't already have. It takes more of those free days away, but I really am enjoying where I'm at with this organization. You know, I enjoyed being with Joe (Gibbs), and the great thing is I had a great car owner for 10 years in the Cup Series to learn from. I miss being with those guys, but I'm glad that I can take the things that I learned from Joe and apply them over here, too. I think that makes him proud."
Could you ever see yourself going back and driving for someone else again?
"I hope I don't have to do that again because I really enjoy being an owner in this series. We have racetracks that we own, our open-wheel teams in USAC and the World of Outlaws, and I'm really comfortable and happy in this role. Now, could I do it? Yeah, absolutely. That's what I did all my life until I became an owner here. But, you hope we don't ever have to be in that position. At the same time, if it did happen, we could do it. It probably would make me a better driver driving for another car owner if I had to go back, just from having my experience as an owner now."
Daytona is your first stop of the 2011 season, but with new pavement there, it's a much different Daytona than it's ever been. Talk about that.
"It's almost an identical feeling to what we had at Talladega (Ala.) when it was repaved. The transitions off of (turns) two and four are a little more abrupt than what we have at Talladega, but as far as the ride, you literally could hold a full cup of coffee with the lid off and not spill a drop riding around there.
"We have to run a restrictor plate there, and when you're just running by yourself, the cars always feel kind of lazy. But what we saw at the test was that when you get around other cars is when you notice that Hendrick horsepower. Seems like we were able to get around some other cars pretty well. I felt like we had really good horsepower.
"Guys are realizing the value of having two cars hooked up together. It's something that we've not seen a lot of in the past. You saw it at times, but I think guys are realizing that is how the Daytona 500 is going to be won -- getting two cars hooked up together and who can do it and get away from the pack.
"But getting hooked up is hard. You can't do it from the start of the race to the end of the race because the guy behind is going to overheat. What we saw at the test is how fast guys can switch positions, make that swap, and get hooked up again and pick their lap times back up. I think it will put it back in the driver's hands because it's a matter of how quick can you make that change? Even if your car is only a tenth of a second off of two other cars, if you can do that change a half-second quicker each time, then you're ahead of the game. It's going to be critical in how it plays out."
What would winning the Daytona 500 mean to you?
"You look at marquee events around the world, and not only NASCAR but in all of motorsports -- the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours At Daytona, the Indy 500, the Knoxville Nationals -- and to be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports. To be able to able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a racecar driver."
Where would winning the Daytona 500 rank for you?
"No. 1. I may never get a chance to run in those other marquee events, so that's why it puts the Daytona 500 at the top, because it's something that we actually have a shot at. But it is hard. It's a hard race, and it's not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don't accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal."
In 2008, you nearly won the Daytona 500. How close were you?
"I've run that race over in my mind a million times on what I thought I could've done differently. If it would've been the Daytona 498, I had it won. I was forced to make a decision of whether I was going to put my whole race in jeopardy to win it, or know that I was getting passed but I may have a shot to get it back in the end. I took the safer route, and I wish I would've thrown caution to the wind. I think I would've rather crashed out of it knowing that I did everything I could, but I wasn't sure that if I made the move to block Ryan (Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner) to get in front of him -- they were coming at such a high rate of speed I was probably going to crash half the field if I moved."
If you had to do that race over again, would you make the other decision?
"Yes. That decision to play it safe has haunted me ever since. So, if that situation happens again, I may come back on a hook, but at least I can say I know I did everything I could do to give myself that shot."
Why was a Daytona 500 win just not in the cards for you that day?
"Ahhh, you know, I was working really good with my (then) teammate Kyle Busch. It was just being at the right place at the right time and, you know, Ryan (Newman) and Kurt Busch had just got hooked up and were making a huge, huge run, and that's what it took to get by us. That was the only way they were going to get by us, was to get locked together, and they did a really good job at it."
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's passing. When you think of him, what comes to mind?
"You just always think of that grin. He always wore his sunglasses, so you could never see his eyes, but there was one thing that you saw and he had that grin. It wasn't a full-blown smile, but he just kinda had this smirky grin. When you saw that, it made you smile."
What's your best Dale Earnhardt story?
"It was the first Budweiser Shootout I won, and I did it by holding him off. I was not physically drained, but I was emotionally drained after that race. Normally when you're leading a restrictor-plate race, you're wide open all the way around and you don't have to do anything but just hold a smooth wheel. But when Dale Earnhardt was behind you, you had to do a lot of extra footwork by lifting and dragging the brake, because you knew how good he was at backing himself up and getting a run at you. When he was running second to you, you knew he was going to throw everything he had at you, and to be able to hold him off meant that not only did we do a good job of driving the car and leading the race, but we did a good job strategy-wise of being able to counter his moves. That's what I remember the most."
You came to NASCAR from Indy cars in the late 1990s. What did you know about Dale Earnhardt when you first got here?
"Everything I saw of him came from watching him on TV. When I was really paying attention to NASCAR the most is when he was kind of in that string of where he would qualify in the mid-30s, and everybody would take bets on Sunday on how long it was going to take him to get to the lead. The best part of the races was seeing the start and seeing who was actually leading, but then seeing how long it took him to get from mid-pack or from back of the back to get to the lead. It was pretty cool."