TONY STEWART West Coast Home Away From Home ATLANTA (April 19, 2005) - Almost seven years before Columbus, Ind., native Tony Stewart pulled his ...
West Coast Home Away From Home
ATLANTA (April 19, 2005) - Almost seven years before Columbus, Ind., native Tony Stewart pulled his #20 Home Depot Pontiac into Phoenix International Raceway's victory lane for his second career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series win, he was wheeling a USAC Silver Crown car around the one-mile oval. It was February of 1993 and Stewart was 21 years old, an up-and-coming race car driver in the open-wheel ranks, making his first start at the Copper World Classic in the season's Silver Crown opener.
He was still a year away from claiming his first USAC championship in the National Midget category, two years from his unprecedented USAC Triple Crown - when he won the National Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles all in the same season - three years from his first Indianapolis 500 start, four years from his Indy Racing League (IRL) championship and nine years from his NASCAR Winston Cup Series title.
But after qualifying second to Davey Hamilton - a former IRL veteran - and leading 31 of the 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss - the 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion - Stewart realized he could make a living as a professional race car driver. The money earned from his second-place effort - $3,500 - made his eight-hour days at five dollars an hour at the hometown machine shop 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.
As Stewart made that ascent, much time and many a lap were spent at Phoenix International Raceway. He has raced at the desert oval in five different types of race cars - USAC Midgets, USAC Silver Crown cars, Indy Racing League machines, Supermodifieds and a Nextel Cup car. And before Saturday night's Subway Fresh 500k Nextel Cup race, Stewart will add a sixth type of race car when he pilots a Chevrolet in Friday night's Bashas' Supermarkets 200 NASCAR Busch Series race.
For Stewart, it's the best way to spend a weekend at his West Coast home away from home.
Because of all the racing you did at Phoenix before you became a Nextel Cup driver, do you consider Phoenix your West Coast home away from home?
"When Buddy Jobe (former owner and president at Phoenix International Raceway) had this facility he was the one who told me that Phoenix was my West Coast home away from home. And I didn't realize it until I came to Phoenix when I was with the IRL (Indy Racing League) and saw how many test sessions we had at Phoenix and how many laps I had put in there before a race even started. Whether it was tire testing or chassis testing the IRL car or a USAC Midget or a Sprint car, I spent a lot of time at Phoenix International Raceway. I really do feel like it's my West Coast home away from home.
"When we come out to Phoenix two times this year as opposed to just once like we have in the past, it'll be like a homecoming each time. It's a place where I feel comfortable. I know every inch of that race track. I've driven five different types of cars there, and between all those cars I've run at least five different lines. I feel like I know it better than most of the other folks who've just run stock cars there."
Did the changes to the track a few years ago - where the outside wall stretching along turn two and onto the backstretch was pushed back 12 feet, and a tunnel underneath turn four was installed, with new pavement throughout the corner as a result of the construction - affect how you located yourself on the race track?
"It didn't really matter. I don't think the changes helped any one person over another. For me with the amount of years I spent at PIR, my reaction to the changes was more sentimental. It was a shame to come in and not see the bridge over turn four. And my favorite part of the track was off of turn two with the way that wall came in. You found out which men were men when they raced up against that outside wall. That was my favorite part of the track, but now that wall doesn't jut out near as much since they opened up that part of the track.
"Coming off turn two and onto the dogleg was always a pretty good passing opportunity because that end of the track was tighter. It was difficult to get through. With the wall being moved out 12 feet we can run faster through that section of the track. It doesn't lend to as many passing opportunities as it had in the past.
"The overall changes, especially the part where they had to deal with the surface of the race track, I think they did an excellent job. Laying a tunnel in the race track and then having to patch that area back over - that's the smoothest patch job I've ever driven across.
"You've got to applaud the people at Phoenix who improved the facility and continue to improve the facility. Year after year it's bigger and better and more race-friendly. This year we get to come to Phoenix in the spring and have a night race. I don't know what's going to add more excitement than that. If you can't have fun with that, you're never going to enjoy a race at Phoenix. The lights make us look like we're running twice as fast, and when we bottom-out in the turns you'll see the sparks fly out from underneath the cars. It'll be a good show. The people who miss out and don't get their tickets - I'm going to feel sorry for them because they're going to have to watch it on TV. And you just don't get the same perspective that you would if you were up in the grandstands seeing it firsthand."
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, and of course, Nextel Cup in The Home Depot car. So, I've logged a bunch of laps there. I even made my 100th Nextel Cup start there three years ago. 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 all those laps that you made over the years at Phoenix help prepare you for when you first went there in a Nextel Cup car?
"I think so. With every different division of car that I've run there, I've ended up running a different line. With that, I've learned a lot about that race track and where the sweet spots are on that race track. I was used to the place when it came time to run there in Nextel Cup. I knew a lot about that race track and the different places that can make you go fast or slow. It gave me an opportunity to adapt a lot more to the car than to the race track."
When you talk about "sweet spots," what do you mean?
"You learn about all the bumps and where all the bumps are on the race track. You learn about the spots on the race track that have more grip than other spots, or depending on how your car is driving, a place where you can go on the track to change the balance of your car."
Phoenix is a flat track, but is it like the other flat tracks on the circuit, or is it an entity all its own?
"Everybody calls it a flat track, but to me one end is flat and one end has banking to it. It's a unique place because the radius of the corners are different on each end, the banking of the corners are different on each end, and then you have the dogleg on the backstretch."
Is racing in the Southwest like a family reunion of sorts, because there are so many people in that area who you've met during your racing career?
"With the racing I've done with USAC out West, I've developed a lot of friendships and relationships with people. Running Nextel Cup, we don't have the opportunity to go out to that area but a couple of times a year. The small amount of time that we get to spend out in Phoenix for the Cup race is very valuable to me and all my friends out there. And with all of those friends and fans in that area, there's a fair amount of pride that I take in racing at Phoenix. So for me, it's a place that's very important for The Home Depot Chevrolet to run well."
Do you expect much of an adjustment in racing under the lights at Phoenix as opposed to racing at Phoenix during the daytime?
"I think everyone who has gotten to this level has had plenty of experience in racing under the lights. No one in this series just started running Nextel Cup cars. We all started at some short track somewhere running races at night, so I think all of us have plenty of experience running under the lights. And for me, I'm one of those guys who hates getting up early. I'm a lot better at night than I am at eight o'clock in the morning."