KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Oct. 17, 2012) – Tony Stewart is a fan of progressive rock, be it of the powerhouse band “Kansas” that was formed in the early 1970s in Topeka, to the rock that was recently unearthed at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., to make way for progressive banking.
Now Kansas joins the mix of progressively-banked tracks, with the 1.5-mile oval jettisoning its constant, 15 degrees of banking in its turns to progressive banking of 17 to 20 degrees. A new coat of asphalt covers the reconfigured surface, and Stewart and the rest of his Sprint Cup counterparts get two days of testing at the new Kansas before qualifying on Friday for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400.
Stewart’s history at Kansas is impressive, but it’s also irrelevant. His two wins (2006 and 2009), five top-fives, eight top-10s and 152 laps led in 13 previous Sprint Cup starts were on a surface that no longer exists. It is a new ballgame, much like it was in back-to-back weekends in June when the Sprint Cup Series visited Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. Both tracks undertook massive repaving projects during the offseason, and in June drivers saw the new-age tracks for the first time. Stewart adapted quickly, finishing third at Pocono and second at Michigan.
Can further improvement at the third newly-paved track this season net Stewart his fourth win of 2012 and the 48th of his career? Stewart’s pedigree says yes, as the four-time USAC champion honed his skills on dirt, where tracks change drastically from the drop of the green flag to the end of a 30-lap feature. One’s ability to adapt is paramount to one’s success, and Stewart showed that not only in the mid-1990s when he dominated USAC, but as recently as this spring and summer when he won nine Sprint Car races, including two in the ultra-competitive World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series – July 17 at Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, Pa., and July 31 at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario, Canada.
While Kansas’ revised layout and fresh pavement are a far cry from the dirt tracks Stewart has barnstormed, its surface will change from a blank slate to one that has a character all its own, from Friday through Sunday and, especially, throughout the 267 laps in the Hollywood Casino 400.
Kansas may indeed be the great unknown for many of the 43 drivers who will start Sunday’s race, but for Stewart, that unknown is an advantage. His ability to adapt and wheel his Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy on a line that covers the 1.5-mile oval quicker than his counterparts is something Stewart has already proven at Homestead and Las Vegas. For him, it’s a great opportunity to score another win and reenergize his standing in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Does going to a repaved venue like Kansas prove to be an advantage for a driver without as much experience, because for once they have the same amount of seat time at that particular racetrack in its current condition as anyone else on the circuit? “It does. That’s what I liked when we went to Homestead in ’99. I felt like nobody had an advantage over me there. Nobody knows the secrets at a new racetrack unless they’ve tested, and even then they may not know the secrets. It’s a whole new ballgame and it’s totally up for grabs. It’s really anybody’s race.”
What do you expect at the new Kansas? “No idea. All I know is that the track will have a ton of grip and a ton of speed. We’ll find out how that affects our line around the track as the weekend goes on. I mean, we start making laps there on Wednesday and we don’t race until Sunday. That’s a lot of time to learn.”
With new pavement comes much higher speeds. Is there a concern with the high speeds you’ll experience at Kansas? “I don’t think so. The safety of these cars has come a long way, and racetrack safety, too, with the soft walls. I don’t think you’re ever really concerned about it until something bad happens. But I’ve been to racetracks, and I’ve seen crashes at 60 mph that hurt people a lot worse than 160 mph. So I feel pretty confident with the safety package that we have, with both the racetrack side and with what NASCAR has done with the cars.”
Speaking of experience, you’re one of four drivers in the Chase who are 40 years old or older. How can you use experience to your advantage? “There’s something to be said for having experience in this series. You’re running longer races. In a 30-lap race, everybody just hangs it out and gets everything they can get. But in this series where we have races that are 400, 500 miles long, the guys with experience know when to push. They know when it matters. It’s like that every week because our races are so long. There’s times you have to be patient and do the opposite of what you want to do. You let guys go because you know it’s the wrong part of the race to be fighting for a position. There’s nothing that replaces seat time, and guys that have experience at this level know how to put together an entire race, not just a segment.”
Do you feel your age? “When we’re in the car, I feel just as good as anybody else. I’m not a guy that’s going to jog down to the end of the street and back and not be sitting there gasping for air. With all the racing that we do, there’s a lot of these races – a lot of 400-500-mile races – where we get out of the car and I feel like I could get back in the car and start the entire race over and run the whole thing again and feel just fine. There’s something about being race fit and knowing how to deal with these long races.”
You’re going to end up running nearly 100 races this year, half of which will be in a Sprint Car on dirt. Has that helped you in NASCAR? “It’s something I’ve been doing a lot this year, but the winged Sprint Cars probably caught me off guard the most. You’re driving a car that with the driver weighs 1,450 pounds and has 925 horsepower. It has the big wing on top of it. Anything you run that has a wing, it has so much downforce it definitely keeps you on your toes.
“When I was running Indy cars, you had to hit your marks. You had to be so precise on hitting the same spot every time. You find that same trend with the dirt cars, but the track changes throughout the night. You add a cushion to it, then you start throwing other variables in there that you’re not used to. That’s probably been the hardest thing for me, but that’s also what has made it such fun for me this year.”
What is the competition on dirt like these days compared to when you raced on dirt regularly in the 1980s and 1990s? “When I came up through the USAC ranks, I didn’t run any winged Sprint Car stuff. It was a different chapter, to be honest. I never was really involved in the winged Sprint Car side until after I had started with Joe Gibbs Racing. We started our first World of Outlaws team in 2001 with Danny Lasoski, and it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that I started running the winged Sprint Car a lot. Man, I’m telling you, the competition is tough. You’ve got guys like Kyle Larson and Donny Schatz and Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell – you’ve got the same guys that have always been good, but you’ve got a young group of guys like Larson. The competition is as tough in Sprint Car racing as it has ever been. There are more teams than ever that have been able to go out each week and put together a good night.”
Source: Stewart-Haas Racing