TONY STEWART Knock, Knock, Knock, KNOCK! KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (April 21, 2009) -- It began as subtle tapping with an eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. When a third-place run was ...
Knock, Knock, Knock, KNOCK!
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (April 21, 2009) -- It began as subtle tapping with an eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. When a third-place run was recorded after the sixth race of the season at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, it was a gentle knock. When that third-place effort was followed by a fourth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, the knock became louder and slightly more persistent. And after the most recent performance -- a second-place result at Phoenix International Raceway -- the knocking is about to bust the door off its hinges.
The fist doing the knocking belongs to none other than Tony Stewart, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion who left the comfy confines of Joe Gibbs Racing to become a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing. The door he's been knocking on leads to victory lane, a place Stewart visited 33 times during his 10-year Sprint Cup career with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Not since Ricky Rudd on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville has a driver/owner gone to victory lane. Stewart is primed to change that.
The driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS is off to one of the best starts of his Sprint Cup career. Currently fourth in points, it's the highest standing Stewart has ever held eight races into the season. In only two years -- 2002 and 2006 -- has Stewart won a race before the month of May.
Stewart came up .734 of a second shy of winning that first race as a driver/owner last Saturday night at Phoenix when venerable Mark Martin nabbed the first victory for a driver over the age of 50 since Morgan Shepherd, 51, won on March 20, 1993 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Many thought Stewart would pick up the win at Phoenix, for the man has led laps at the 1-mile oval in just about every type of racecar imaginable. That he came in second to a driver universally held in high-esteem by his peers only fortified the notion that Stewart is ready to win now.
So if it can't be Phoenix, it might as well be the 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, site of Sunday's Aaron's 499.
Stewart's most recent Sprint Cup victory came at Talladega just 14 races ago when he broke a 43-race winless streak dating back to Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in 2007. It was a triumph long overdue, not only because it was his lone Sprint Cup win of 2008, but because prior to that October day, Stewart had finished second at Talladega six times, a feat that tied him with Bobby Allison and Martin for the most runner-up finishes without a victory at a track currently on the Sprint Cup schedule. (Allison finished second six times and never won at Martinsville, while Martin holds this distinction at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.)
Just as Stewart ended his own winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series' last visit to Talladega, Stewart is looking to end the drought faced by driver/owners. It's been a whopping 370 races since Rudd carried the driver/owner torch into victory lane. But now it's Stewart who carries that torch, clasped in a tight fist with bloody knuckles.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
With your recent history at Talladega, how much are you looking forward to getting back there for this weekend's race?
"I'm always excited about Talladega. We've always run really well there. We've got a great history there. We won the Nationwide Series race last year in the spring, and then we won the Sprint Cup race in the fall, so it was a pretty cool year for us."
Can you explain how your team has come together so well, so quickly?
"It's hard to believe that a totally new combination like this has been able to do what we've done so far, but it's because we've got great people. I'm the last piece of the equation that makes the puzzle work. We've just got a great group who've been working really well together."
In the past three races you've pulled in three straight top-five finishes, including a season-best second-place finish last week at Phoenix that bumped you up to fourth in points. What's it been like to find this kind of success this early with this team?
"The last three weeks have just been amazing. I mean, it's been so much fun. We've been in contention. We've led laps. We're doing everything right. It's just a matter of time. We're consistent now, and that's what you've got to be in order to be successful.
"It's been refreshing. When you've never had a start like this to the season, after 10 years of this, it's nice to finally have one. It's amazing to think that with a new team we can go out and have this kind of a start to the year."
Your win last October at Talladega had a little bit of controversy, as you weren't the first car across the finish line, but you were the first car to legally cross the finish line. Regan Smith, who was ahead of you at the finish, wasn't awarded the win because he passed you below the yellow line, which is out-of-bounds territory according to NASCAR. After the race, Smith claimed he was blocked below the yellow line. Looking back, what's your take?
"I've lost Daytona 500s and I've lost races at Talladega because somebody blocked. That's the name of the game. Last year's race wasn't any different than the last 19 races I'd run there. There's always been people blocking. The nice thing is that, for once, I was actually on the right end of it. Trust me, I have no regrets about what I did. I did exactly what I needed to do to win the race, and it worked out."
What is your interpretation of the yellow line ruling, which is used only at restrictor-plate races?
"The first thing that David Hoots (Managing Event Director, NASCAR) always says in the driver's meeting is, 'This is your warning.' The driver's meeting is your warning about staying above the yellow line and racing above the yellow line. They always say that starts with the drop of the green flag to the end of the checkered flag, with emphasis in the corners and the tri-oval. It's been the same speech since they came up with that rule. They've never wavered off of it. It's pretty self-explanatory."
Daytona and Talladega are always mentioned in the same breath because they're both restrictor-plate tracks. But what makes them different?
"Daytona is a handling track and Talladega is a speed track. Nobody has a bad-handling car at Talladega. They all drive well, whereas at Daytona, 90 percent of the battle is getting your car to handle well. It's more of a chess match at Talladega, and that's because the place was repaved just a couple of years ago. It's such a smooth track. Daytona is old. It's got bumps in it and the surface is worn out and it takes grip away, and that's why the mechanical setup of the car is so much more important. At Talladega, because it's so smooth with such a fresh surface, it's got a lot of grip to begin with. Bumps are what normally take grip away. As soon as you start having to work on your suspension, that's when you give up grip. With Talladega being so smooth, it doesn't matter. You can go anywhere you want to go and you have grip."
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."