TONY STEWART Ready to Light Up the Chase Starting with Sylvania 300 KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 15, 2010) - Tony Stewart eschewed the spotlight for much of 2010. Mind you, it was not by choice. After an incredible 2009 season where the first-year...
Ready to Light Up the Chase Starting with Sylvania 300
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 15, 2010) - Tony Stewart eschewed the spotlight for much of 2010. Mind you, it was not by choice.
After an incredible 2009 season where the first-year driver/owner for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) won four races - five if you include the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway - and handily led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship point standings for 13 straight weeks, the bar was set high for 2010.
Stewart's sophomore year in the dual role of driver and owner started off sluggish, with only three top-10s in the series' first 11 races - the bright spot being a second-place finish to four-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in March at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Stewart dropped to as low as 18th in points, but with a ninth-place finish in May at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, he initiated an incredible march toward this year's Chase for the Championship.
Beginning at Dover, Stewart rattled off 11 top-10 finishes in 14 races - six of which were top-fives - that culminated with a win Labor Day weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway which pulled him up to fourth in points and clinched a spot for Stewart in the elite, 12-driver Chase. It was the sixth time Stewart qualified for the Chase since its inception in 2004, and it erased a 31-race winless streak dating back to Oct. 4, 2009 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.
The upward trend has sent Stewart's stock soaring as he enters the 10-race Chase this weekend in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. But despite his bull market status, Stewart seems to be flying below the radar of some other blue-chip commodities, as six-win victor Denny Hamlin sits atop the Chase standings, while Johnson is again the safe pick thanks to his record of achievement.
Stewart, however, is ready to light up the Chase by kicking off his championship charge with a strong run in the Sylvania 300.
In 23 career Sprint Cup starts at New Hampshire, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet has two wins (July 2000 and July 2005), one pole (September 2005), eight top-threes, 12 top-fives, 14 top-10s and has led a total of 1,030 laps, second only to Jeff Gordon's total of 1,205 laps led, but with eight fewer starts than Gordon. And to top it all off, Stewart has two wins outside of Sprint Cup at the 1.058-mile oval - a NASCAR Nationwide Series triumph in 2008 and an IndyCar Series victory in 1998.
And in his last visit to the Granite State back in June, Stewart finished second to Johnson - a 1-2 finish that represented a half-decade's worth of championships, as Stewart is the last Sprint Cup champion not named Johnson. Stewart won the series title in 2005 - the second year of the Chase - to bookend the crown he earned in 2002 under the old, season-long championship layout, making Stewart the only driver to win a title under both formats.
Now, a third championship beckons, and Stewart is intent on letting the wave of consistency that took him to the Chase push him toward the ultimate motorsports prize - the Sprint Cup Series championship.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Even with a late regular-season win at Atlanta Motor Speedway that marked your 11th top-10 finish in 14 races - a run that brought you from 18th in points to fourth - you seem to enter this year's Chase a little under the radar.
"Yeah. I don't care. When you win a championship 10 years down the road, they don't remember how you did it, they don't remember what scenarios put you there, all they really see is the paperwork and the column that says you won. I'm one of those guys that I don't care if I finish in the top-20 the whole Chase if that's what we have to do to win the championship. You do what it takes and you do what you have to do, but I feel like we've got a lot of momentum right now. I think Atlanta was proof of that - that we've been gaining on it a little bit at a time. It hasn't been any big chunks, but it's just been a lot of hard work with our organization and the results are starting to show."
Your fellow Chase drivers have said they don't think there's an overwhelming favorite to win this year's Chase. Are they just being polite or is that the truth?
"I honestly agree with that 100 percent. I feel like we're in a scenario where we've got the opportunity to have the most competitive Chase we've ever had with the new format. There are guys that started off the year strong that kind of flattened off a little bit, and there are guys that had a weak start to the year that are gaining a lot of momentum. I think it's hard to honestly pick one or two guys that anyone can say are truly the clear-cut favorites. Somebody is going to go out there and say, 'Oh I said that guy would do it!' But nobody truly knows. I really believe it is the most competitive field. There are 12 solid teams out there that have a legitimate shot at winning it because the performance of their teams and their organizations have been good."
What's it going to take to win this year's Chase?
"We've got the most competitive Chase field we've ever had. You hate to sound like an idiot by saying you've just got to be better than the other 11 guys, but that's what it's going to come down to. You have to capitalize on the tracks you're good at, and you're not going to be able to have bad races. You're not going to be able to get a mulligan. You're going to have to be good for 10 straight weeks. You don't have that flexibility with this field to have an off night."
So, what will win the Chase - consistency or wins?
"I think consistency. You could go out and win four or five races, and have one bad day and lose the championship. With the fact that you can get 43rd-place points, that can kill you better than the wins can help you. All it takes is one bad day, and you've lost your opportunity to go to Vegas. It's that simple. Until they give the 12 Chase drivers their own points structure, that's the reality you have to face. If you have that one bad day, it's going to eliminate you out of that possibility."
How important is it to have a good race at New Hampshire and start the Chase off on the right foot?
"The only way you know is after 10 races. You could finish dead last at Loudon and theoretically still win the championship, so it's hard to say how much of an impact Loudon really makes until you get down to the end and you look at the point standings. I think probably the most important part is just momentum for the team and keeping the morale of the team up. You don't want to start the Chase and get behind and feel like you've got a strike against you for the next nine weeks. If you can get that momentum early, and even if you just have a solid, decent run, that can make a big difference in the morale of the team."
As far as a place to start the Chase goes, there's probably no better place than New Hampshire as far as you're concerned, right?
"I like starting (the Chase) at Loudon. It's a track where we run really well. It's been good to us in the past. It's nice to have one of our stronger tracks right off the bat. Hopefully, if we have a good run there it will set the tone for the last nine weeks. I feel like it's one of our better tracks. We consistently run really well there. I'm excited about starting there and hopefully getting a good run there and getting a good start in the Chase. It's a handling track. It's a driver's track where you can help yourself out and move around. It doesn't seem like you can move around a lot, but from where I sit with the steering wheel, you can move around a lot and help yourself out. It's a fun place to start the Chase, and as we've seen in the past, it can be a place that can either get your Chase hopes off to a great start or wipe them out in one week."
You're the only driver to have won a championship under the old season-long format (2002) and a championship under the current Chase format (2005). Do you feel a sense of the history you can make by winning another Sprint Cup title, as you would become only the second two-time Chase champion while still holding on to the title as the only driver to win a Winston Cup championship?
"Honestly, not as much as I should. It's such a good feeling knowing that we have that opportunity. Obviously, things have changed a lot in the last couple of years with the way the Chase is constructed. But just to have that opportunity each year is something every team is striving for. Now that we're locked into that position, we've got 10 weeks to go out there and make that become a reality again."
Does having won championships better prepare you for a championship run this year?
"By theory, yes. But you could have 50 championships under your belt and still finish 12th in points. But just knowing how to deal with the pressure is probably the biggest thing. Knowing what's going to happen and what positions you're going to be in when those last two or three weeks come up - if you're one of those guys that still has a legitimate shot of winning the championship - that's the kind of experience you'll want to have gone through."