Phoenix II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Launch Sequence Began at Phoenix ATLANTA (Nov. 4, 2008) -- Most are willing to concede this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship to Jimmie Johnson. In fact, the two-time and reigning Sprint Cup champ can clinch his ...

Launch Sequence Began at Phoenix

ATLANTA (Nov. 4, 2008) -- Most are willing to concede this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship to Jimmie Johnson. In fact, the two-time and reigning Sprint Cup champ can clinch his third straight title with a seventh-place finish or better in Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500k at Phoenix International Raceway and the season finale Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But fear not racing aficionados, for there's another championship battle being waged where another multi-time champion is looking to secure yet another title.

Facing a 404-point deficit with only two races remaining, Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, won't supplant Johnson as the winner of this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. But he is still a title contender, just in a different series and in a different role.

Stewart the car owner is on the cusp of earning his second owner's championship of 2008 and the 10th of his career. After book-ending his first World of Outlaws (WoO) Sprint Car Series owner's title in 2001 with driver Danny Lasoski, Stewart secured his second WoO Sprint Car Series owner's crown last Friday night at The Dirt Track in Concord, N.C., with Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) driver Donny Schatz.

Amazingly, Stewart can earn yet another owner's championship with his U.S. Auto Club (USAC) team.

TSR driver Tracy Hines currently leads the USAC Midget Series standings with 1,165 points and carries a 39-point advantage over his nearest pursuer, Cole Whitt. Only two races remain -- Thursday at Phoenix International Raceway and Nov. 27 with the 68th running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.). If Hines can deliver Stewart another owner's title, it would be Stewart's first in the Midget division but eighth overall in USAC.

TSR driver Levi Jones clinched his second USAC National Sprint Car Series championship, and the second consecutive Sprint Car title for Stewart, by virtue of his fourth-place finish in last year's 25-lap Western World preliminary feature at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix. J.J. Yeley, Stewart's former teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, earned a USAC Sprint Car championship for TSR in 2003. And in a co-owner role with Bob East, TSR won four straight USAC Silver Crown championships from 2002 to 2005 with a handful of drivers that included Yeley, Kasey Kahne and Dave Steele. TSR's Sprint Car crown in 2006 came via Josh Wise, who has since moved up the racing ladder, where he's cutting his teeth in stock cars, competing in the ARCA RE/MAX Series, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

It's all laid the groundwork for Stewart's next step as a driver/owner in the elite Sprint Cup Series. In 2009, Stewart-Haas Racing will be his new home.

It's hard to believe that just 10 years ago Stewart was the top rookie in what used to be known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He is now considered a veteran thanks to 33 career victories highlighted by championships in 2002 and 2005, and he is seemingly primed to become an equally successful driver/owner. It is an impressive career trajectory.

But Stewart's original launch didn't come in 1999. It came seven years earlier. Stewart's performance in a USAC Silver Crown car in February 1993 at Phoenix -- his first race ever at the desert mile -- turned heads and had team owners in the IRL IndyCar Series and NASCAR alike asking, "Who is this kid?"

The event was the famed Copper World Classic and the season-opener for USAC's Silver Crown division. Stewart qualified second to Davey Hamilton -- a former IRL veteran -- and led 31 of the 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss -- the 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion. The $3,500 payday for his second-place effort made eight-hour days at $5 an hour in the cold confines of the machine shop where Stewart worked in Indiana seem unnecessary. Packing the rest of the 1993 season with Silver Crown, Sprint and Midget races across the nation, Stewart's quick ascent up the racing ladder began.

Almost three years later, Phoenix again served as another rung on that ladder.

With his USAC "Triple Crown" championship firmly in hand, Stewart tested A.J. Foyt's Indy car at Phoenix in October 1995. For five days Stewart lapped the Phoenix oval under the dutiful watch of the four-time Indianapolis 500 champion.

A month later, Foyt's crew needed someone to drive their car at Texas World Speedway in College Station for a TV commercial. While it was a long way from an actual race, the 24 year-old Stewart took the invite as a positive measure of Foyt's belief in him. Stewart's instincts were right on, because just after having dinner at Foyt's Texas ranch, Foyt offered Stewart a ride in the IRL IndyCar Series for 1996.

The IRL was still in its infancy, so the 1996 season Foyt offered Stewart amounted to Disney World in January, Phoenix in March and Indianapolis in May. But Foyt wasn't the only car owner who was interested in Stewart.

Harry Ranier, a NASCAR team owner who had fielded race cars since 1967 and recorded 24 wins, was looking to get back into ownership after selling his team to Robert Yates at the conclusion of the 1988 season. Ranier's second attempt at NASCAR team ownership came in November 1995 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the NASCAR Nationwide Series season finale. Stewart was his driver.

The start-up team didn't make the race, but Stewart had a handshake agreement with Ranier to run a handful of Nationwide Series races in 1996. Foyt didn't like the idea of sharing his driver with another owner, and told Stewart as much. But Stewart wasn't comfortable in backing out of his deal with Ranier, so he turned down Foyt's offer.

"What aspiring driver turns down an offer from A.J. Foyt?" asked many in the motorsports community. But for Stewart, it was a matter of principle. Today, few can knock Stewart's thought process.

The nine Nationwide Series races he ran for Ranier turned heads in the stock car world, one of which belonged to Joe Gibbs. The three-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins hired Stewart to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 1997. Twenty-seven Nationwide Series races and two years later, Stewart was in Cup. And at Phoenix -- the track that gave him his start in professional motorsports -- Stewart earned his second Cup Series victory by beating Mark Martin to the finish line by more than two seconds in the 1999 Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500k.

A Cup Series history that will soon include ownership of a Sprint Cup team continues for Stewart via Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500k at Phoenix.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

-credit: jgr

Jimmie Johnson could clinch his third straight championship this weekend with still one race remaining on the schedule. Because he's been so strong during the Chase, some say the Chase isn't as interesting as it's been in the past. What changes would you make to the Chase to make it more compelling?

"I don't know why they would want to change it. It's pretty good the way it is. I like it the way it is. Everybody's reset with 10 weeks to go and the best team that performs over the 10-week stretch is the team that wins. I don't know how much more simple we could make that. If I were going to change the Chase at all, and if I had control of the Chase, the only thing that I would do different is the 12 guys that are in the Chase would get first through 12th-place points based on how we race with each other, because that's who we're racing for the championship. The other 31 guys that are involved in each race each weekend, we're still racing those guys for the win each week, but we're not racing those guys for the championship. So why should those guys be able to dictate how the championship turns out? That's the only thing that I would change about the Chase. NASCAR is the one that determines the races that are going to be in the Chase, and that's it. You have to do your job for those 10 weeks and that's pretty simple. It's a pretty simple philosophy of if you do better than the other guys for 10 straight weeks, you win the championship."

You'll be wearing your owner hat in addition to your racing helmet while at Phoenix. How are you going to do it, and why do you do it?

"My USAC teams get to run Thursday night at Phoenix with the Midget and Silver Crown divisions, and then the Sprint Car Series gets to run at Manzanita (Speedway) on Friday and Saturday. So I get to do my job and do what I love doing during the day, and then in the evenings, I get to go out and watch my race teams run. So to be able to pack all of that into a three-day period is something you don't normally get a chance to do. It's a great opportunity for me to hang out at a place I'm very familiar with and have spent a lot of time at in an area where we have a lot of friends."

How long have you been racing at Phoenix?

"I started racing there in '93 when I ran a Silver Crown car. And since then, I've run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, Nationwide Series cars, and of course, Sprint Cup in The Home Depot car. So, I've logged a bunch of laps there. To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it's the place where my career came full-circle."

Did you take an immediate liking to Phoenix in 1993 when you ran there in USAC?

"When we ran the USAC cars out there it was pretty cool because I had never gone that fast before. It's just one of those tracks that to run a Midget and a Silver Crown car there, it definitely got your attention. It was pretty fast."

Did you get a pretty good paycheck that day?

"Well, at that time, yeah, absolutely. When I was thinking about the five dollar hours I was working at a machine shop, $3,500 was a pretty good payday."

Can you explain how Phoenix differs in the way the car handles in turns one and two as opposed to turns three and four?

"Every type of car that I've driven here -- from USAC Midgets and Silver Crown cars to Supermodifieds to Indy cars to Nationwide cars and now the Sprint Cup cars -- running all those different divisions, the one common variable is the two ends of the track are unique and different from each other. It's always been a situation where if your car is really good in three and four, you're normally a little bit tight in one and two, and if you get one and two really good, you're normally a little bit too loose in three and four. You do have to weigh the options and try to find that balance of which end of the track is more important to you. You know you're probably not going to be perfect in both ends, and you'll have to pick one end or the other to get your car really good. I do have a preference, but I don't tell everybody else that. That's what having all these years and these laps of experience there does for me. It's the one secret variable that I try to use to my advantage."

How did you transition from one type of racing to another?

"It's more fear than anything that I'm going to have to get a real job if I'm not successful. I think that's the great thing about running USAC and being in Indiana where not only did we have winged Sprint cars and non-winged Sprint cars, Midgets, Silver Crown cars, we ran on dirt tracks one night and pavement the next. We ran Modifieds and Late Models. There were just so many things to drive around there that you learned how to adapt, and you learned how not to have a preconceived notion about how a race car is supposed to feel and drive. You learned more how to read what the car was telling you as far as what it liked and disliked, and learned how to change your driving style accordingly. Especially at Phoenix, every car we've driven there, even though the track's the same, they all drove different. You just had to adapt to it and learn to read the race car, instead of thinking this is what the car I ran last night felt like and it's supposed to feel like this today. It doesn't work that way."

Is it safe to say you have Phoenix figured out?

"I've definitely spent a lot of time there. Myself and Arie Luyendyk were the two lead test drivers for Firestone when we were in the IRL. We spent a lot of time in Phoenix because the weather is so good out there all year long. We would spend three days out there tire testing and we had two or three of those sessions through the winter. I got to spend a lot of time running around Phoenix. I probably know every line around the track that's ever been ran and why it's been ran. It helps when you get in the stock cars or anything you get in when you're out there. I pretty much know how to get around there."

Because you're so familiar with Phoenix, do you enter this weekend's race with an added sense of confidence?

"Sure. Any time you go back to a facility that you've had success at, you're always excited to go back there. It's not only the performance that we've had there, it's the total draw for me enjoying Phoenix so much. We have a chance to go to Manzanita, where every fall, my Sprint cars are out there. I get a chance in the evenings to go watch my own cars race as well as do what I do at the Cup track.

"It's just kind of the total package when I go out there. It's a great facility. Obviously, there aren't too many tracks you go to that you look over the backstretch and you see mountains and cactus everywhere. You hear people talking about cowboys going up there in the morning with a bag and grabbing rattlesnakes the day of the race to clear them out so people can sit down. It's just a pretty special race track."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Danny Lasoski , Kasey Kahne , Donny Schatz , J.J. Yeley , Tracy Hines , Mike Bliss , Levi Jones , Robert Yates , Josh Wise , Cole Whitt , A.J. Foyt
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing