Phoenix: Tony Stewart preview

"Why Not Us?" KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (April 15, 2009) -- Since the Car of Tomorrow's debut at Phoenix International Raceway in April 2007, Hendrick Motorsports has won all four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at the 1-mile oval in Avondale, ...

"Why Not Us?"

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (April 15, 2009) -- Since the Car of Tomorrow's debut at Phoenix International Raceway in April 2007, Hendrick Motorsports has won all four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at the 1-mile oval in Avondale, Ariz.

Jeff Gordon won the first race on that April evening, edging out a disappointed Tony Stewart, who had led three times for a race-high 132 laps before finishing second. And in the series' return visit to Phoenix that November, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, won to launch a string of three consecutive victories at the desert jewel that could very well be four if he proves triumphant in Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500k.

Many drivers plan on thwarting Johnson's plan, and that list includes Stewart, pilot of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The first-year driver/owner heads into Phoenix with a "Why Not Us?" mentality. After 10 years at Joe Gibbs Racing, where Stewart won the second of his 33 career Sprint Cup races at Phoenix during his rookie season in 1999, the two-time Sprint Cup champion returns to Phoenix with a Hendrick chassis powered by a Hendrick engine.

While Stewart-Haas Racing stands on its own two feet, the ladder it's using to climb to the top of the NASCAR hierarchy is built by Hendrick. The team gets all of its engines and chassis from Hendrick, a relationship that has proven its worth by measure of Stewart's fifth-place point standing via two top-fives and five top-10s in the seven Sprint Cup races run thus far.

It all leads back to Stewart's thought of "Why Not Us?" at Phoenix. After all, he has the same basic parts and pieces as Gordon and Johnson, and he gets to use them at a racetrack that he calls his West Coast home away from home.

Long before Stewart was the top rookie in what used to be known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, he was an aspiring racecar driver still working for five bucks an hour at a machine shop in his hometown of Columbus, Ind. But it was at Phoenix in February 1993 where Stewart decided to take the "aspiring" tag and do something with it.

The event was the famed Copper World Classic and the season-opener for USAC's Silver Crown division, and it was Stewart's first-ever race at Phoenix. When it was over, the then 21-year-old Stewart turned heads and had team owners in the IRL IndyCar Series and NASCAR alike asking, "Who is this kid?"

"The kid" 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 Camping World Truck Series champion. The $3,500 payday for his second-place effort made eight-hour days in the cold confines of that 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.

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 racecars 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.

Now Stewart is back, older, wiser and with more responsibility than ever. The 150 employees at Stewart-Haas Racing have given the 37-year-old Stewart an extra gear to use in his new role as driver and owner. That gear, combined with Stewart's penchant for using Phoenix as a breakout venue, gives "Why Not Us?" a certain credibility not seen since the last driver/owner won a Sprint Cup race -- Ricky Rudd on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

You had a nice break with the Easter holiday. Did that time give you a chance to reflect on how well you and Stewart-Haas Racing have started this season?

"Everything at the racetrack has been smooth for us. Everything at the shop has run extremely smooth. I'm really proud of our whole organization and how well everyone is working together. Most of the guys who were with the original Haas organization, we kept. We lost about 20 people but replaced them with about 50 people. We were actually one of the few teams that were hiring this off-season. The people we added all came from different organizations, so they all had a perceived way of doing things. To get everyone pointed in the same direction, where some folks had to un-learn things, and get them all comfortable in our system, to see the positive results of that has been very satisfying."

Are you surprised by how well you've started the season, or is this what you expected?

"When we first looked at this deal and we looked at the resources available to us, on paper it's supposed to work. Everything is there. We have good crew chiefs, two good drivers and a great competition director in Bobby Hutchens. So we know that we have all the tools we need. But there's still the reality that we're going up against Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Those are some big teams. We're a new organization with a new group of guys and to go out there and have the success that we've had, we have been a little surprised, but we're obviously very happy that we're out there holding our own."

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. 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 racecar 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 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."

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. 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."

There seems to be an epidemic of mistakes being made on pit road so far this season. What has changed from last year to this year to cause such an increase in pit road miscues?

"So much pressure is put on these pit crew guys to have fast pit stops and not lose, but actually gain us track position every time, that they need to sometimes slow down to go faster. Probably the reason why you're seeing more problems on pit road this year is because of the longer wheel studs we have to use now. The guys on the pit crew have had to learn to slow down a little bit. They have to keep their gun on the nut longer to make sure they're drawn up all the way and are good and tight. It's been an adjustment this year, but I think it's also a matter of new groups of guys with new race teams wanting to make sure they're performing right off the bat. There's some stress that comes with that. But when problems happen the good thing is that they're too fast. All they need to do is take the extra time to hit the lugs right. It's easier to slow them down than it is to speed them up. That's one of those problems that as a car owner, you know it's easy to fix. You know what it is, you can isolate it and you can find a solution. It's not a lack of performance. It's over-performance. I'm really proud of our guys on this Office Depot/Old Spice team because in the first two races of the year we had pit stop awards. They're a good group of guys who have really come together well."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Davey Hamilton , Jimmie Johnson , Mike Bliss , Robert Yates , A.J. Foyt
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing