The Man at The Glen
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., – Tony Stewart is so good at the relatively niche art of road racing that he might as well add a few umlauts to his name, at least for this weekend as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series invades the 11-turn, 2.45-mile road course that is Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
For years, road racing was considered a European hallmark, where Formula One reigns supreme and oval racetracks are vastly outnumbered by the twists and turns of the continent’s seemingly endless supply of road courses. Drivers with such names as Lewis, Jenson, Nigel, Mika, Sebastian, Kimi and Fernando are most often thought of as the premiere road-course talent.
But here in the good, ol’ U.S. of A, it’s a guy named Tony who reigns supreme, as Stewart’s five Sprint Cup wins at The Glen suggest.
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing comes from working-class roots in Columbus, Ind., yet he possesses otherworldly driving skills that would put such Formula One champions as Mika Häkkinen (1998-1999) and Kimi Räikkönen (2007) to the test if they dared cross the Atlantic to compete at The Glen as their Formula One predecessors did from 1961 through 1980.
Since 1999 when Stewart began racing “tin-tops” at Watkins Glen as a Sprint Cup rookie, he’s collected the most wins of any driver in Sprint Cup. His first win came in 2002, with subsequent trips to victory lane in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009. And in six of the series’ last seven visits to Watkins Glen, Stewart has either won or finished second. His lone finish outside the top-two was his seventh-place effort last year.
In his 12 career Sprint Cup starts at The Glen, Stewart has only two finishes worse than seventh – 26th in 2001 and 11th in 2003. He has an average start of 6.2 and an average finish of 5.4. Stewart is indeed the man at The Glen, for the only driver even close to him is the ageless Mark Martin, who at 52 has made 21 career Sprint Cup appearances at The Glen with an average starting spot of 9.8 and an average finish of 8.3.
Bolstering Stewart’s legend at The Glen is his success at the Sprint Cup Series’ other road course venue – Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. There, Stewart has two wins, two second-place finishes, four top-fives and eight top-10s in his 13 career Sprint Cup starts, giving him an average finish of 11.5.
Tally it all up and Stewart has seven road-course wins and only three finishes lower than 15th – 26th at Watkins Glen in 2001, 28th at Sonoma in 2006 and 39th at Sonoma in 2011. His average road-course finish is 8.6, which is due in large part to having recorded only one DNF (Did Not Finish) in his 25 career road-course races and earning a lap completion rate of 99.13 percent.
Adding fuel to Smoke’s fire is that he comes into Watkins Glen with a string of gritty finishes that has bumped him from 12th in points a month-and-a-half ago to his current standing of ninth with a 24-point cushion over 11th-place Denny Hamlin.
Unbelievably, Stewart is still winless 21 races into the 36-race season, with his last victory coming 27 races ago on Oct. 10, 2010 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. But with Stewart’s tenacious drive and his history at Watkins Glen, conventional wisdom has it that Stewart’s victory drought will end in Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Does the success you’ve had at Watkins Glen give you added confidence, perhaps more so than at other tracks?
“It’s a race that we always look forward to. We’ve had a lot of success there and it’s just fun. It’s like taking Sonoma and just multiplying the speed times three. It’s just a lot faster track. It still has the same elevation changes, but you’re just running a lot quicker. Both Sonoma and Watkins Glen are two places on the schedule that we really enjoy coming to.
“When you’ve won five races, it gives you that confidence that you know how to win, and know what you have to do to get to victory lane. I know what feel I need when we get here. It’s just a matter of going out and practicing and putting yourself in that position.”
What’s made you so successful on road courses, and Watkins Glen in particular?
“I don’t know. I mean it’s kind of that way with Sonoma, too. We seem to have taken to the road racing side of it fairly well and we just have had good luck with it. I don’t know that there’s a secret to it, necessarily. I think a lot of it is when we get here we look forward to being here. There are some drivers that don’t look forward to the road-course races, and with us, we actually look forward to it. We like the change in pace and doing something different for a weekend. That’s something we always look forward to and it kind of gets us boosted up for the weekend.
“I like it when it gets hot and slick there. It’s kind of played into our hands for the last 11 years it seems like. This part of the year when the temperatures are at their highest, we tend to pick up. I think we can handle the slicker conditions sometimes a little better than some of the guys around us. A lot of guys panic because they know it’s going to get slick. I get excited when I know it’s going to get slick.”
When you’re this deep into the season without a win, what goes through your mind, especially for someone like you who’s used to winning?
“This is my 31st year in racing. You take one weekend at a time and you don’t think about the numbers as to how long it’s been since the last time you’ve won. You just go with the same attitude you do every weekend, and that’s to try and win the race. You go through the steps of trying to put yourself in that position to be there at the end of the day. You focus on what you need to do to win the race you’re in.”
Is the fact you haven’t won yet a testament to the competitiveness of the Sprint Cup Series?
“You can’t predict who is going to be good each week. This sport is more competitive than it’s ever been. It’s a cool time to be a driver in this series, for sure.”
In the last four races, you’ve moved from 12th in points to ninth. How?
“We’re getting our cars better, and that’s what I’m happy about. I’m not really that worried about the points. I mean, it’s not like we’re comfortable because we’re not locked in yet. So, you still have to worry about it, but I’m more worried about what we’ve got if we get to the Chase. It doesn’t matter if we get to the Chase and don’t have anything to run for a championship with. We’ve got to just keep plugging away. We’re not all the way there, but we’re gaining on it and that’s encouraging. This is the time of the year when you want to be building momentum and not losing it. We’ve had some strong runs here recently. I’m hoping that trend is going to keep going. If it does, I’d much rather be in this situation than leading the points when it doesn’t get you anything.”
How do you gain momentum going into the Chase, and then sustain that momentum once you’re in the Chase?
“You just have to keep running well. You have to keep going and doing what you’re doing each week. It would be nice to go out and rip off three or four wins before the Chase starts, but if you’re not doing that, not having the bonus points is not necessarily going to kill you, but you just have to be really good and consistent in the Chase, and if you can do that for 10 straight weeks, you can have a shot at it no matter how many bonus points you had to start with.”
With three straight top-11 finishes, including a second-place run at New Hampshire to your teammate Ryan Newman, how has this performance boosted the morale of your race team?
“The big thing is when people that aren’t use to running bad start to run bad, it’s easy to start losing confidence and losing focus and losing direction and just getting discouraged. As a team owner now, I have to worry about watching the whole organization go through that. I’m really proud of all of our guys and the fact that they are staying encouraged, they’re keeping their heads up, they’re staying focused on what they need to do and they’re working hard. There are guys that are staying late every day that don’t have to stay late at work. They’re sacrificing time with their families to help make our program better. As a car owner, that’s all you can ask for. To have that dedication from your guys and whether you’re winning races or not, to just know that you have that part of the equation on your side gives you hope that the rest of it will get better.”
The last road course race at Sonoma was pretty rough with lots of beating and banging. Do you think Watkins Glen will be as physical as Sonoma?
“It doesn’t normally tend to be. A lot of that is because we don’t have corners where you have such high speeds and then go down to such low speeds. The Glen, just the overall speed of the track is a lot greater. I don’t think you’ll see near as much contact as what we saw at Sonoma. At Sonoma it just seems to get worse every time we go there. It seems like at The Glen you’re running a lot faster and the guys don’t want to put themselves in that position.”
You’ve won seven road course races altogether – two at Sonoma and five at The Glen. Does success at one venue transfer to the other?
“The two tracks, while both road courses, are still pretty different. At Watkins Glen you don’t have to finesse the throttle near as much as you do at Sonoma. When you get the car turned, you can get in the gas and then stay in the gas. Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma. I think there are the same amounts of passing opportunities, but because of the speeds that you’re able to run at The Glen, brakes become a much bigger factor than I think they are at Sonoma. It’s pretty much a horsepower track. It just happens to be in the form of a road course. Sonoma has a lot less grip in the racetrack. You have to really be careful with the throttle there, and that puts more of the race in the driver’s hands. If anything, Sonoma is probably more technical than Watkins Glen because there’s hardly any time where you get a chance to rest. You’re always either shifting or accelerating or braking or turning or doing something. At Watkins Glen, at least on the frontstretch and on the backstretch, there are three straightaways where you get a little bit of time to take a break. Watkins Glen seems to be more in the crew’s hands and the engine builder’s hands. Obviously, there’s still a job that I need to do in the racecar, but I’m relying on the equipment and the crew a lot more at Watkins Glen.”
Because road-course racing is such a different discipline, how do you approach it?
“I’ve just always liked it. I won a national championship racing go-karts on road courses, so the concept of what it took to win races on road courses wasn’t totally unknown to me, but driving cars with suspension, and definitely driving cars that you had to shift, that’s something that came relatively easy to me, and still comes easy to me as far as knowing how to synchronize the gears without having to use the help of the clutch. Even in the sports cars that I’ve driven with guys who have driven road courses all their life, I’ve gotten out of the car and the crew has torn the gearboxes apart and said that the dog rings in my transmission look better than when those guys are done with a transmission. There’s just something about the shifting side of it that’s been really natural to me, and it’s fun. I like having a different discipline to race on. I like having the opportunity to do something twice a year that we don’t get a shot at doing very often. I take the same amount of pride that someone like Ron Fellows or Scott Pruett does when they come into a road-course race. I take that same pride in running well that they do in these cars. I don’t look at it from the standpoint that it’s a negative weekend. I look at it as a positive, that it’s something we enjoy and I feel like that gives us a leg up on most of the guys we race with at these tracks.”
How much do you look forward to racing on the road courses?
“I love the two road courses. It’s nice because it kind of breaks up the monotony of the season. We do the same thing every week and it’s nice to have two road course races thrown in the mix that give us a chance to do something a little bit off-center for all of us. It’s kind of like the ‘Prelude’ with no dirt added, unless you drive off, which a lot of us do. We still get a dirt aspect in it, I guess.”