Michigan: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Climate Change KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (June 11, 2009) -- As the mercury continues to rise even before the official start of summer, climatologists have a new culprit for global warming -- Tony Stewart. The driver of the No. 14 ...

TONY STEWART
Climate Change

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (June 11, 2009) -- As the mercury continues to rise even before the official start of summer, climatologists have a new culprit for global warming -- Tony Stewart.

The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing is the hottest thing going in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. After taking the lead in the championship point standings with a rousing second-place finish on May 31 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Stewart added an exclamation point to his stunning first season as a driver/owner by winning last Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.

It was Stewart's 34th career Sprint Cup victory, but first as a driver/owner, for the previous 33 wins came during his 10-year tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing.

That Stewart is doing what he's doing while wearing the hats of both driver and owner with what is essentially a first-year team goes against history, for the last driver/owner to win a Sprint Cup race was Ricky Rudd on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, and the last driver/owner to lead the points was Alan Kulwicki on Nov. 15, 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway when he won the championship by 10 points over Bill Elliott.

As Stewart has erased the droughts of driver/owners in the win column and at the top of the point standings, he's also erased the doubts of those who thought his foray into team ownership would thwart his winning ways and preclude him from adding to the Sprint Cup championships he earned in 2002 and 2005.

Fourteen races into the 36-race marathon that is the Sprint Cup Series, Stewart has rocketed past questions about whether he'd ever again compete for a championship, to who will compete for the championship with him.

Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn is the next opportunity for Stewart to solidify his title chances, as each win during the 26-race regular season is worth 10 bonus points toward the final, 10-race Chase for the Championship. With only the top-12 drivers in points eligible to compete for the championship, their point tallies are all reset to 5,000 beginning with round 27 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. But for each win a top-12 driver has achieved, 10 points gets added to their tally, thereby seeding the drivers from first to 12th.

Stewart wants to remain first, but if the Chase started this weekend, he would be in a four-way tie for third with other one-race winners Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and David Reutimann. Two-race winners Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth would be tied for second, and leading the points would be three-race winner Kyle Busch, despite the fact that he is currently ninth in points. And the other two-race winner, Mark Martin, is presently on the outside looking in at the 12-driver Chase, just one point behind 12th-place Denny Hamlin.

Just as Stewart separated himself from the pack at Pocono by winning with a 2.004 second margin of victory over Carl Edwards, he looks to do the same amid his probable Chase counterparts.

Only 12 races remain before the Chase begins, and Stewart knows as well as anyone that time is of the essence. And as the clock ticks closer toward Michigan, Stewart sees 200 laps around the 2-mile, D-shaped oval as his next best opportunity to maintain his current point lead and rise toward the top of the Chase standings.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

With all this success, how good does it feel to be a driver/owner?

"It's awesome. It was supposed to be so stressful to do this, especially this year with the economy being what it is. It was supposed to add stress. It has actually taken stress away. I don't understand why. I don't really have a good answer for it. Every day when I wake up, I look forward to going to the shop. I look forward to going to the track. I'm having fun. I haven't had this much fun for a long time. I loved where I was at, I loved the group of people I was with, but I guess this is a situation that you see with pro athletes all the time. Sometimes you just need a change, and this was a change that apparently I needed and didn't realize."

Did you think you could compete for a championship in your first year as a driver/owner?

"I'm not sure that I thought we could win a championship the first year. It's like we said a million times -- you look at everything on paper, you look at the resources, you look at the equipment that we have, the shop that we have, all the pieces of the puzzle -- it makes sense that yes, you have a shot just like everybody else does. But you get to the track and see the guys you are up against and the competition we are racing against, there are no slouches. I mean, there haven't been any slouches in this series for a long, long time. There have always been car owners that have been on top of their games. As the sport has evolved and times and technologies have changed, these car owners have evolved with it. You don't become successful by not adapting to that. We are up against some tough competition. But the great part is we are aligned with a super team and that gives us the opportunity to have the success we are having. We keep working well with Hendrick Motorsports, and their engine department and chassis department are a critical part of how we've been able to do what we've done so far."

With all of the wins you've achieved in your racing career, where did your Pocono victory rank?

"We don't keep rankings. We keep trophies. They're on a shelf and you scoot one over and slide the next one to it. You love having the opportunity to do that. It's not about rankings. It's just about enjoying the moment. Obviously, special races like the Brickyard 400 and Daytona 500 and Indy 500s are marquee events that mean more, but a win is a win. It's just the personal satisfaction at the moment that you have for it and the appreciation that you have for how hard everybody works to get you in a situation like that."

Aside from your win at Pocono, the other first of the weekend was the debut of double-file restarts in a point-paying race. How did you think it worked?

"It worked great. To the best of my knowledge, there weren't any hiccups with people not understanding where they were supposed to be. It was awesome not having to deal with lapped cars on restarts. It was nice knowing that everybody you were around was for position.

"I think the great thing about it is that we have a sanctioning body that is proactive. They're listening to people and realize that people wanted a change, and so they really worked hard in a short amount of time to make that happen. We're fortunate to have a sanctioning body that listens to its fans and cares.

"The system worked really well at Pocono and it will work well in the future. I think it's something the fans are going to enjoy, and it's pretty easy to understand. You don't have a restart where people are going: 'Is that guy a lap down or is he not a lap down?' It's probably going to be a lot easier for everybody to understand every time we go on the racetrack."

Casual observers seem to say that the racing on D-shaped ovals is boring. But drivers seem to like it because they're able to move around and use multiple grooves. Is that true at Michigan?

"Yes, you can definitely move around at Michigan. The thing about Michigan is that it's been there for so long now that there's no one, specific groove anymore. You can literally race from the white line on the apron all the way to the wall. That's the groove. Depending on how your car is driving, you can move around on the racetrack and help yourself. That's what makes Michigan such a fun racetrack for the drivers. The drivers can really help themselves out if they don't have a car that's working right. You can move around on the racetrack and find a spot that helps your car do what you need it to do."

At what point do you start to move around on the racetrack to find a better handle for your race car?

"As soon as you feel like you're not where you need to be. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the racetrack and find a place that helps balance your racecar. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out."

Where does Michigan rank in terms of all the 1.5- to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that are on the Sprint Cup circuit?

"It's so wide and there are so many lines that you can run -- that's what makes Michigan fun for drivers. You have to figure out how to gauge your momentum and know where you want to be on that racetrack when you enter those corners. Michigan's layout gives the drivers the flexibility to really make a difference in their car's handling."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , David Reutimann , Carl Edwards , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin , Alan Kulwicki
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing