TONY STEWART Enter Sandman ATLANTA (April 13, 2006) - The sand that blows around Phoenix International Raceway and the surrounding desert is a familiar sight to Tony Stewart, driver of the ...
ATLANTA (April 13, 2006) - The sand that blows around Phoenix International Raceway and the surrounding desert is a familiar sight to Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
Stewart considers Phoenix to be his West Coast home away from home. He has raced at the 1-mile oval in six different types of race cars - USAC Midgets, USAC Silver Crown cars, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, a NASCAR Busch Series car and a Nextel Cup car. But it was his performance in a USAC Silver Crown car in February 1993 at Phoenix - his first race ever at the desert mile - that turned heads and had team owners in the IRL IndyCar Series and in NASCAR asking, "Who is this kid?"
It 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 at the Columbus, Ind., machine shop where Stewart worked 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 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 with the NASCAR Busch 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 Busch 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 Busch 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 Busch 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/Dura Lube 500k.
A Cup Series history that now includes two championships and 25 victories continues at Phoenix with the April 22 Subway Fresh 500k.
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 of 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 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 a year, it's like a homecoming each time. It's a place where I feel comfortable. I know every inch of that race track. I've driven six 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."
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, Busch cars, 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 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."
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 2 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 2 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. I love coming to Phoenix for a night race. 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 see the sparks fly out from underneath the cars. It's 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."
Is there 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."
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."