TONY STEWART Dover's Concrete Oval Part of Path to Concrete Jungle KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 13, 2010) -- With an average finish of 24th in the past six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races that has dropped him from fifth to 18th in points, Tony Stewart...
Dover's Concrete Oval Part of Path to Concrete Jungle
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (May 13, 2010) -- With an average finish of 24th in the past six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races that has dropped him from fifth to 18th in points, Tony Stewart might feel as if he's in a jungle where thickets of underbrush threaten to smother his journey toward civilization. Civilization, of course, being the Chase for the Championship, which is punctuated by a pre-Chase media tour in the concrete jungle of New York City.
Concrete of a different sort is in store for Stewart this weekend at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, one of only two concrete tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. The 1-mile oval on the Delmarva Peninsula is home to Sunday's Autism Speaks 400, round 12 on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule.
With 11 races down, 15 races remain before the cutoff for the Chase following round 26 Sept. 11 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. After that race, only the top-12 drivers in points will be eligible to compete for the championship during the season's final 10 races, and Stewart is currently 59 points arrears 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. With so much racing still to go, 59 points is a relatively small margin to overcome.
The road to redemption begins at Dover, mainly because it's Stewart's next race, but also because concrete brought Stewart his best finish so far this season.
The only other concrete track on the circuit is Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, where Stewart finished second to four-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on March 21. Since that time, Stewart has finished no better than 16th, so a return to racing around a concrete oval is a welcome one. In fact, he'll even use the same No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet that delivered him that second-place result.
And it's not just Chassis No. 14-530 that likes concrete. Stewart likes it, too, particularly the concrete at Dover. The two-time Sprint Cup title-winner has scored two wins, three second-place finishes, 10 top-fives, 14 top-10s and has led a total of 1,072 laps in 22 career Sprint Cup starts at Dover. It's a body of work that dwarfs the six-race skid Stewart has endured since running second to Johnson at Bristol.
Stewart has been a part of NASCAR's trip to New York's concrete jungle five times since the advent of the Chase in 2004. He plans to use Dover's concrete as a springboard to the concrete of Manhattan, where for two days he'll trade his firesuit for a business suit.
He's not going to sweat the point standings now. He's simply going to take care of business starting this weekend at Dover.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice 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 six straight races where you've finished outside the top-15 and you're now 18th 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."
How concerned are you about how you've been running of late?
"We're confused as to what's going on and why it's going on.The good thing is the morale of our team is still really high still. Darian (Grubb, crew chief) and I are side by side on it and our attitude with each other is great, so that's a big positive in trying to get it all sorted out. We're not building barriers between ourselves. We're not even talking about it because we're so close.He feels bad for me after the race.I feel bad for him and the guys after the race. I think that's what's kept us all so close through all of this."
Have you had an experience like this before?
"I had this same thing happen in '94 when I won the USAC Midget championship with Ralph Potter.We started the year and it was a disaster.It was exactly the same thing, but it was just a disaster start to the season. But we found what we were missing and got better. There are no guarantees in racing.Technology changes.Things change.We're missing on something right now, but we'll find it."
Is it different when you're searching for answers as a driver-owner versus being just the driver?
"No. I still have to get in there on race day and put my helmet on and try to figure out why the car won't do what I want it to do.It's not any different.You still work just as hard."
Since finishing second at Bristol in the fifth of the race season, you've dropped from fifth in points to 18th. Are you paying attention to the point standings?
"No.It's way too early for that now, for me at least. I don't do it."
Where you are right now is similar to where you were in 2006 when you didn't make the Chase.Do you feel like you're on the brink again this year?
"I don't feel that way, yet.If there were three races to go, then I might be a little more nervous about it, but I think we've got a lot of time. It doesn't mean that you take it for granted because you've got that time, but I'm not sure the panic button's been hit yet."
What about in regard to where your cars are now, as compared to then?
"So much has changed since then. These cars are so sensitive now to change that, if you miss it a little bit, you miss it a lot.It seems like if you don't have it at the beginning of the day, you don't have it and you're not going to get it.Guys who are in that range at the beginning of the race have a shot at it.The guys who aren't, it seems like there are days when it doesn't matter what you do, you can't get it there from where you're at."
Your average start is slightly better this year than last year. You've also led a few more laps this year than you did at this time last year.So, is this just a string of bad luck you're experiencing?
"I don't think so.It's not like crashes or miscues have been the problem. It just seems like we've missed the handle this year. I'm not a very good qualifier, but I've qualified much better this year than I have in the past, for years, so I'm really excited about that side of it.And yes, we've led some laps. We just haven't been able to be good the last half of races or the last two-thirds of races. We start off strong and somehow we lose the handle on it and don't get it back by the end of the day.So, that's something we're definitely looking at."
Does it help that you're coming up on the summer months, when it gets hot and you visit some racetracks where you've had success?
"It's definitely a section of the season that I'm looking forward to, for sure. There's definitely is a string coming up that makes me feel a little more comfortable, going to tracks that I know we're historically good at."
Dover's surface is concrete. Do you have to alter your driving style when you race on concrete?
"I don't think you drive it any differently. But because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would. There are seams in Dover's surface and places where they've cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there, the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that's constantly changing. But it's one of those places where you really can't change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It's just a matter of finding the package that's right for that racetrack. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track -- either the car is going to b