Ready To Hit ‘500’
There’s an adage in baseball that says when you hit “500” (home runs) you get into the Hall of Fame.
If that’s the case, Tony Stewart will punch his ticket to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Sunday when he hits career start No. 500 upon taking the green for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, will become one of 32 drivers to hit the 500-start mark.
Stewart’s Sprint Cup debut came in the 1999 Daytona 500 and, by his 25th start, he had his first win – Sept. 11, 1999 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. The wins kept coming, as Stewart has at least one victory in each of his 14 Sprint Cup seasons. His high-water mark of six wins in a single season came back in 2000, but the years haven’t done anything to dampen Stewart’s proclivity for spraying champagne in victory lane, as witnessed last year at Homestead when Stewart captured his third Sprint Cup championship in epic fashion.
In a race that went down as one of the best in NASCAR’s long and storied history, Stewart won last year’s race at Homestead and clinched his third Sprint Cup championship. He led four times for 65 laps to defeat Carl Edwards by 1.306 seconds to score his fifth win of the season and his third in 13 career Sprint Cup starts at Homestead. Ever the overachiever, Stewart passed an incredible 118 cars throughout the 267-lap race around the 1.5-mile oval.
He and Edwards both ended the season tied atop the standings with 2,403 points, but Stewart’s five wins trumped Edwards’ lone victory, giving Stewart the tiebreaker advantage.
Stewart won Sprint Cup titles in 2002 and 2005, and with the 2011 crown, he became the first driver-owner to win a Sprint Cup championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. In addition, Stewart became the ninth driver to win three or more championships as he joined Richard Petty (seven), Dale Earnhardt (seven), Jimmie Johnson (five), Jeff Gordon (four), David Pearson (three), Darrell Waltrip (three) Cale Yarborough (three) and Lee Petty (three).
Just as Stewart is far removed from his first career start back in 1999, he’s far removed from this year’s title chase. Currently ninth in the standings, Stewart is 87 points out of first and mathematically eliminated from title contention. Regardless, he is in good company, as only two drivers from the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field remain eligible for this year’s championship – Brad Keselowski and five-time Sprint Cup champion Johnson.
Just as Stewart and Edwards made the rest of the Sprint Cup field onlookers to last year’s championship, Keselowski and Johnson have done the same this year. However, their duel still pales in comparison to the one of Stewart and Edwards. That duo came into Homestead separated by only three points, and if either driver won, that driver would win the championship. Both drivers led, but it was Stewart who came out on top – in the race and in the championship.
Twenty points separate Johnson from Chase leader Keselowski, to where all Keselowski has to do is finish 15th or better in Sunday’s season finale and he’ll win the championship, regardless of how Johnson fares. But as we saw last Sunday in the series’ penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway, anything can happen, as Johnson came into Phoenix with a seven-point lead but left with a 20-point deficit after a flat right-front tire sent him into the wall.
Stewart, the reigning Sprint Cup champion for only a few more days, will watch this championship battle play out. By no means, however, will Stewart just ride around Homestead as Keselowski and Johnson chase the trophy he won last year. There is still a race trophy up for grabs, and with three wins already this season, but none since the July 7 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway – a span of 17 races – Stewart is keen on ending his 14th season in Sprint Cup by putting his No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet in Homestead’s victory lane for a fourth time.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ll be making your 500th career Sprint Cup start at Homestead. Does that surprise you, or do you look at it as just another number? “I’ll give you the reality of this deal. I didn’t even know it until somebody told me. And I was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool.’ But then it was back to business. It’s a milestone, but it’s not as big when you compare it to some of the other drivers and see how many starts they have in their career. When you compare it to Richard Petty (1,184 starts) or Ricky Rudd (906 starts) or Mark Martin (853 starts), 500 isn’t a lot.”
Even though you downplay your 500th start, do you consider yourself a NASCAR veteran? “I think after 14 years I’m somewhat of a veteran. I’m not yet an ageless veteran, but a veteran, nonetheless.”
What is your mindset heading into Homestead? “We’re just going out there to try and win the race. That’s all we can do. We’re not in a championship battle, but we’re still in a battle for points. We still have to go out and do the best we can to get as many points as we can.”
(Currently ninth in points, Stewart can climb to as high as third or drop to as low as 11th. – Ed.)
Is it difficult when you’re not in a championship battle to keep your focus through the end of the season? “Yeah, because all everybody wants to do is talk about the guys that are in it, and all we want to do is worry about the stuff that we’re doing that didn’t get us in it and trying to make our cars better. That is the stuff we’re trying to work on and to concentrate on our program and not worry about what everybody else is doing. And it’s hard. You want to be in the middle of it and you want to be one of those guys that are there, but at the same time when it doesn’t work out, you have to sit there and try to figure out why you didn’t get yourself in that situation. They’re still trying to fight for this year, but were already fighting for next year.”
Knowing the pressure that comes with being in championship contention entering Homestead, will you enjoy the last race of the season simply because there is no pressure? “Trust me, I’d much rather have the pressure of being the point leader, or even remotely close to the point leader. But being where we are does take a little bit of that edge off. Still, I’d much rather be right there in the middle of the championship knowing that we’ve got a shot of winning it. Pressure is a part of this business, and we’re all used to it by now.”
Talk about going to Homestead last year and the way the race unfolded, where you were in the position of having to win the race to win the championship. “I think it showed everybody that every point and every lap means something. When I took the white flag there was a big sense of relief because we had had rain off and on during the evening, and knowing that taking the white flag that if the caution came out, it was over. So then it was just a matter of running the same lap that I had run a lap before and getting back to the start/finish line. It was just such a weight lifted off our shoulders because I wasn’t 100 percent sure when we took the checkers that we had won the championship. I knew it was close and we had run through the scenarios all week about what had to happen, but when it came down to it I was just so caught up in the moment they had to tell me whether we won the championship or not.”
You passed 118 cars throughout the race because you had to come from the back to the front multiple times. Knowing all that was on the line, what was that back-and-forth like? “We had an Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy that was really, really good. We didn’t have a lot of speed in ‘happy hour’, but I was happy with my balance and I kind of just went into the race with nothing to lose. We had a problem early in the first 10 laps and had to go to the back. We got by 15 or 18 cars before we had another incident and had to go to the back. It just seemed like by the time the rain delay came and we got out of the cars and we had driven from the back of the field twice and up to fifth it was like, ‘I’ve seen this movie and I know how this ends.’ We’re still in this thing, so that whole hour-and-a-half rain delay I’m just sitting there with a lot of confidence, sitting there knowing that it’s not over yet, but we’re in striking distance. We fought through two major hurdles to get there, and if we can overcome that to get where we were, I didn’t feel like there was much that could hold us back the rest of the way.”
What was it like to finally take the white flag last year at Homestead? “When you take that white flag, it puts part of your mind at ease because you know that no matter what happens, if there’s a crash or it starts downpouring, the race is over and everybody’s positions are locked. But you still have to finish that lap. I’ve learned from experience, and I didn’t take it easy that lap. I ran within a tenth of a second of what I ran the lap before mainly because I just didn’t want to get myself out of rhythm and make a mistake. So we had right at a second-and-two-tenths lead, so it really didn’t give you much flexibility to mess around, but that whole lap was the longest lap of the day to me. You get in there and you hope that nothing goes wrong. You hope that you don’t hit a seam wrong. You’re going down the backstretch and you’re like ‘half a lap.’ That’s all I kept saying was ‘half a lap, half a lap – gotta make it half a lap.’”
If you had to sum up last year’s race in one word, what would it be? “Relief. Relief was really the biggest thing because it just took so much pressure off. Relief was part of the equation. The white flag was almost as important to me as the checkered flag was, to a certain degree.”
What was your most vivid mental picture of winning the championship last year at Homestead that still sticks with you today? “Probably at two o’clock in the morning standing in turn four with Ricky Stenhouse (NASCAR Nationwide Series champion) and Austin Dillon (NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion). The three of us were standing there with our trophies and realizing what just happened. It was just kind of surreal. We were away from everybody. There were about three photographers and the three of us with our PR reps. It just was the first quiet moment we had after all the chaotic victory lane stuff. It was probably the first time I had a chance to reflect on what had happened and what we had accomplished.”
Before you even turned a lap last year at Homestead, you played some mind games with Edwards. Why? “I don’t think it’s something that you start the Chase with, but going into Homestead, we didn’t have anything to lose. I definitely think it helped us a little bit. I think it worked to our advantage. I thought Carl did a good job of working through it at the same time. You definitely take the gloves off and you throw everything you’ve got at it there at the end.”
A lot was made about what kind of champion you would be when you won your first championship in 2002. You were more polarizing then, sometimes getting more boos than cheers at driver introductions. Over the years, it was about 50/50 boos and cheers and now it’s mostly cheers. Why do you think that’s the case? “Because I’ve stayed true to who I am, and I’m honest and say what’s on my mind, and I don’t take crap from anybody and have just always stayed who I am. I’ve never changed who I was and have never changed my views on things to be popular. I’ve just stayed the course and I think people respect that.”
Have your 14 years of Sprint Cup experience allowed you to know when to push for position and when to settle for what you have? “I’m not sure when I actually realized all that. I think it’s just common sense to know that if you make a mistake and don’t finish, it’s worse than losing one or two spots because you just don’t have the car that’s going to get it done that day. It’s just something that’s always made sense to us. If you wreck the car trying to maintain a spot or get a spot that you think you need, it’s risk versus reward. The risk outweighs the reward at that point. A lot of times, it’s just easier to let one spot go if you have to, and either wait for the next pit stop or realize that’s just all we have for that day.”
Explain a lap around Homestead. “You go off into turn one, and when you get into the banking, you lift. If your car is good, you can go and not use any brake, or very, very little brake. You stay one lane off the bottom, past the transition – it’s a little less banking on the lower level toward the apron – so you stay one level above that. As soon as your car settles in you can really just mash right back in the gas and just ride that second level around down onto the backstretch. And then you do exactly the same thing going into turn three. A lot of times in turn three, because of the wind direction there, you can actually go into the corner a lot harder and a lot further, actually turning into the corner before you get off the gas. And it’s the same thing, once that car settles in, you get on the gas and ride it around to the frontstretch. It’s a pretty smooth racetrack.”
Homestead is an intermediate track, the kind that make up the majority of the Sprint Cup schedule, yet it still seems unique. Why? “The way you drive the racetrack is pretty unique. The corners are very symmetric, but the way that you drive it is a little bit different. It creates a lot of opportunities to pass, and it’s a track where you can run from the bottom to the top. It’s just a matter of where your car works the best. The way the momentum gets built and shifted there, it’s kind of unique from all the other tracks as far as you can get through the center of the corner and be three car-lengths ahead of the guy, but a guy can really get a run off the corner, and the next thing you know, on exit, you are back to being side-by-side. It’s a little bit different momentum-wise and how you pass there than some of the other tracks we go to.”