KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (May 2, 2012) – With Tony Stewart’s win earlier this year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he has now found victory lane at all but two of the 23 tracks that host NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events. Only Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Kentucky Speedway in Sparta are tracks where Stewart has gone winless in NASCAR’s top series, and Kentucky hosted its first Sprint Cup race just last year.
Of the 21 tracks where Stewart has won a Sprint Cup race, he has scored multiple wins at 15 of them. He has only one victory apiece at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Phoenix International Raceway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway – site of Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.
Stewart’s lone victory at the 2.66-mile oval came in October 2008 when he started 34th and led 24 of 190 laps en route to victory in a race that was extended two laps due to a green-white-checkered finish. It was his last win as a member of Joe Gibbs Racing before he became co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in 2009.
Since he moved to SHR, Stewart has scored 13 victories and one Sprint Cup championship, but Talladega has been anything but pleasant to the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet.
His seventh-place finish in last October’s Good Sam Club 500 is his only top-15 result at Talladega since his victory four years ago. And Sunday’s race, like the previous 26 Sprint Cup races Stewart has competed in at Talladega, will be a crapshoot. Drivers know that being in the right place at the right time on the last lap is the key to victory, for one moment a driver can be in the lead, and then seconds later get shuffled out of the draft and jettisoned from winning to wondering what would’ve been.
But before Stewart attempts to draft his way into Talladega’s victory lane and hoist a trophy on Sunday, he’ll pick up his Driver of the Year trophy on Thursday night from the International Motorsports Hall of Fame during a black-tie banquet that will also honor 2011 ARCA champion Ty Dillon, as well as induct drag racing legends John Force and Kenny Bernstein and NASCAR owner Richard Childress into the Hall of Fame.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How would you rate yourself as a restrictor-plate racer?
“Well, I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks, especially Talladega. We’ve run in the top-two there a gazillion times. I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”
As a driver, how much input do you have in making the car go fast at Talladega?
“The race situation is a lot different from practice. You tend to have a much larger pack of cars and that makes a really big difference. But you’re still able to figure out what your car likes and dislikes in the draft during practice. It may not be exactly what you’ll experience in the race, but it’s the closest thing to it. Basically, it gives you an idea of what your car is capable of and where you need to be to make the moves you want.”
When you’re in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the racecar?
“It depends on the circumstances. You can’t see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a real big tow or you hit a pocket where it seems they’re getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. That’s why we spend so much time and run so many laps in practice. You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? That’s why so many guys will stay out for so long in practice. It’s trial and error, but at the same time, it’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, the car’s torn up for the race. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”
With the return of pack racing, do you expect the return of multi-car crashes at Talladega?
“Well, if I knew that I would probably be a bookie in Las Vegas. I mean, nobody knows that for sure. Any time that you’re in a pack where you’ve got cars on top of each other like we do, that potential is always there. It’s no different now than it was 20 years ago when I was watching this series and they were doing the same thing. The game is the same. It hasn’t changed that much. So, that potential is always going to be there.”
When you made your first Sprint Cup start back on Feb. 14, 1999, did you envision that you would win championships and contend for wins?
“No, I was just happy to be here. You dream of it, but I’m not sure when you start that you say, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ and you can predict that’s what’s going to happen. There are so many talented drivers and teams in this series that you can’t start in this series and expect to have those kinds of results. I think if you are, you’re being kind of foolish and being more ambitious than realistic. We’ve been really lucky to be with really good people for 14 years now in this series, and that’s what’s gotten us where we are.”
Back in the day, restrictor-plate racing meant racing against Dale Earnhardt, at least if you were racing for the win. Do you have any special memories from your time racing against him?
“You just always knew that, if he was behind you, it wasn’t going to be easy keeping him behind you. There was a reason that he got the nickname ‘Intimidator.’ When you looked in the mirror, you were intimidated by him. Not so much that you were actually intimidated, but you knew that it wasn’t going to be like racing with someone else. If he got to you and if he didn’t get by you in a couple of corners, then he was going to lean on you a little bit. You might wreck, you might keep going, but he was going to make it interesting. That’s what made him so special. The first Bud Shootout we won at Daytona, we outran him there and that was as much as I ever wanted to see of that black ‘3’ in my mirror. That was way too much stress. It was more mental stress than it was physical stress. My mind was wore out after winning that race because he had such a large bag of tricks at Daytona and Talladega that just watching what he was doing and trying to figure out what he was thinking or trying to set up just made you exhausted. Driving the car was easy, it was just trying to mentally figure out and trying to stay up to pace with what his thought process was at the time and knowing how to anticipate what his next move was going to be to beat him.”