TONY STEWART Smoke Signals KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Nov. 10, 2010) -- With a total of seven point-paying NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins and a second straight berth in the Chase for the Championship since the inception of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in...
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Nov. 10, 2010) -- With a total of seven point-paying NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins and a second straight berth in the Chase for the Championship since the inception of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in 2009, it's safe to say that Tony Stewart's foray into NASCAR team ownership has been a successful one. But that comment would only scratch the surface, for Stewart has been a car owner for nearly a decade, fielding championship entries in USAC and the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series.
How many championships? Twelve in all -- nine in USAC and three in the World of Outlaws, with the most recent title coming Oct. 16 when one of his two USAC drivers, Levi Jones, won the National Silver Crown Series championship. Stewart and Brownsburg, Ind.-based Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) will get one more this weekend, as Jones leads the USAC Sprint Car standings by 92 points heading into the season finale Saturday night in Tulare, Calif. By simply competing in the event, Jones will take the crown. It will be his fourth career Sprint Car title and his second straight.
So while this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup title may be out of reach for Stewart, championships in the other series where he has an ownership stake are well in hand. That should signal to Stewart's competitors in the NASCAR garage that the man nicknamed "Smoke" will continue to be a championship presence. Just as his open-wheel program got better with age, expect the same with Stewart's NASCAR operation.
Evidence of that came earlier this year at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) when SHR's Ryan Newman scored the victory. It was the fifth point-paying Sprint Cup win for SHR and Newman's first with the team since joining the organization from Penske Racing in 2009. Stewart added two more wins to SHR's tally this year when he crossed the stripe first Sept. 5 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Oct. 10 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. One more win would give Stewart 40 career Sprint Cup victories.
That Sprint Cup win No. 40 could come at Phoenix is certainly not out of the question. The driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala has a win, seven top-fives, nine-top-10s and has led a total of 327 laps in his 17 career Sprint Cup starts at Phoenix. His average Sprint Cup finish at Phoenix is 11.7 and he has a lap completion rate of 99.8.
On top of all that, there is perhaps no driver who has logged more laps at Phoenix than Stewart. He's competed at the 1-mile oval in Sprint Cup cars, NASCAR Nationwide Series cars, Indy cars, Supermodifieds and USAC Midget and Silver Crown cars. Add up Stewart's laps spent testing at the desert mile, and Stewart is in a league of his own.
As the penultimate race of the 2010 season comes to Phoenix, it's a three-way battle for the Sprint Cup title between Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Nonetheless, expect Stewart's wealth of experience and prodigious amount knowledge of PIR's intricacies to potentially steal some thunder from these championship hopefuls as he builds SHR into a championship contender in 2011.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You've been a car owner of open-wheel teams for nearly a decade. Did that help make the transition of becoming a car owner in NASCAR that much easier?
"It definitely gave us some insight on what it was going to be like. Obviously, at this caliber, and with the amount of people we have at the Cup level, it was hard to know exactly what it was going to be like. But having that experience of being a car owner in the past definitely got us pointed in the right direction when it came time to make the decision to be a Cup owner."
Because you're a driver, do you think the success of your teams is due, in part, because you know what type of driver you need to have and what that driver needs to be successful?
"I think I've been around the sport long enough that I've seen how it's not about individuals. It's about how to put the whole package together. It's about the right driver with the right crew chief with the right equipment, and if you can do that, a lot of times it leads to success."
How long have you been racing at Phoenix?
"I started racing there in '93 when I ran a USAC Silver Crown car. And since then, I've run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, Nationwide Series cars, and of course, Sprint Cup. 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 $5 hours I was working at a machine shop, $3,500 was a pretty good payday."
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 IndyCar Series. 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."
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. 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 racecar is supposed to feel and drive. You learned 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 racecar, 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."
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 (turns) three and four, you're normally a little bit tight in (turns) 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 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."
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. 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 racetrack."