Driver/owner Stewart, three time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, leads his three car team to Daytona Speedweeks.
ANNAPOLIS, N.C. – A new car. It’s a prospect that can be both daunting and exhilarating. It’s visually appealing yet financially intimidating. It’s a rite of passage and often times reflective of varying life stages, from living the single life to joining the ranks of parenthood. And the options? Practically limitless. Chevrolet alone is introducing 13 new vehicles this year. Whether in the market for the sportiness of a Corvette, the luxury of an Impala or the spaciousness of a Traverse, possibilities abound for satisfying the wants and needs a new car provides.
One of the main headline-makers as part of the season’s debut is nothing other than a new car. Sprint Cup’s sixth-generation (Gen-6) car, which was designed to accommodate greater manufacturer brand identity while increasing rivalry and faster racing, means teams will be dealing with a number of unknowns as the season unfolds. However, those question marks are the same for everyone which, in theory, equates to a level playing field.
That’s a theory that exists on paper. But races aren’t won or lost on paper. Triumph and defeat are found on the asphalt of the tracks that make up the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule. Perhaps no one knows this better than Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
For Stewart, the rare breed of racer who successfully carries the dual title of driver and owner at SHR, dealing with a new car is something that’s not so new. In fact, it’s an asset for Stewart, the T-shirt and jeans-wearing everyman from Columbus, Ind.
The unknown is a known entity for Stewart, who as an up-and-coming USAC driver had to adapt to different cars at different tracks – some asphalt and some dirt – in a matter of just a few laps. In his 30-plus years of racing, the versatile Stewart has adapted and overcome his way to 12 driving championships – three of which have come in the elite Sprint Cup Series (2002, 2005, 2011). The pursuit of a fourth Sprint Cup title kicks off this weekend at Daytona, where a career that has already seen 47 Sprint Cup victories rolls on.
Stewart made his first career Sprint Cup start at Daytona on Feb. 14, 1999. Since making his series debut 15 years ago at the historic, 2.5-mile superspeedway, Stewart has earned a pole, four wins, six top-threes, eight top-fives, 13 top-10s and has led a total of 665 laps in his 28 career, point-paying Sprint Cup starts at Daytona. His average Daytona start is 11.6, his average finish is 16.1, and he has a lap completion rate of 92.2 percent. Additionally, he enters Speedweeks having won the track’s most recent Sprint Cup race – the 2012 Coke Zero 400 last July.
Success at Daytona hasn’t been limited to Sprint Cup. Stewart has wins in the former IROC Series, as well as the Nationwide Series, where he has six victories in the season-opening race, including four straight from 2008 through 2011. Despite those accolades, the most glaring omission from Stewart’s resume is a Daytona 500 win. Although he has yet to add his name to the Harley J. Earl trophy, Stewart has earned a total of 18 career Daytona wins – a feat that places him second on the track’s all-time win list, 16 behind the legendary Dale Earnhardt (34 Daytona wins). But as another Speedweeks dawns, Stewart has the opportunity to add four more wins to his already impressive tally, as he’ll compete in the Feb. 16 non-points Sprint Unlimited, the Feb. 21 non- points Budweiser Duel, the Feb. 23 Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race, and the 55th Daytona 500 on Feb. 24.
With all that Stewart has accomplished, the opportunities to experience “firsts” are few and far between. With Daytona again upon Stewart, the future NASCAR Hall-of-Famer will have multiple chances to experience the thrill of a first, and a new car may just be the vehicle he needs to score that elusive Daytona 500 victory.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
It’s a new season with a new car and a lot has been made of the fact that there is still so much to learn about the Gen-6 car. What are your thoughts on the car based on what you’ve been able to experience so far? “To be honest, my new Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy has been a lot easier to drive right off the bat than I thought it would be. I mean, any time you have a new car, it’s normally a handful until the teams get it figured out, and it was – I mean, it almost drove better than the cars we had last year right off the bat, and the teams haven’t had a lot of time with them. There’s obviously still a lot to learn about it and we really won’t be able to get into it until after Daytona. It’s a situation where we’ll get a little better idea of what these cars are like when we go to Vegas and Fontana. I think by the time we come around for the Coke 600, we’re all going to have a better idea of what these cars like and dislike, and it gives you a direction, basically, of which way you need to work with the car.”
How big of a benefit is it being a multi-car organization when it comes to getting up to speed with the new car? “It certainly helps. It’s definitely an asset. You want to come out as an organization and find something in the car before everybody else does because it’s a constant chasing process. If you can get that jump start and get ahead, you might be able to maintain that for a while.”
What do you think fans will think of the new car? “Well, I’m a fan and I like it. I’m excited about the way it looks. I think Chevy has done a really good job. We got a little sneak peek of what the production car looks like, and, like I said, I think it’s really going to be amazing how these cars look so similar. It’s not a replica of the car. It is the car. That’s what this sport was built off of. I think the fans will be excited about it.”
How important was it for the manufacturers to be better represented by the cars being raced? “Well, I don’t want to speak on behalf of Chevy, but I know that if you take a step back and look at it, just having a decal on a car that represents a manufacturer isn’t helping them sell cars the following week. I think for each of these manufacturers to be represented with a car that actually is their make of car is something that this sport was built on. It’s important for them and it’s something that we’ve needed for a long time.”
How do you feel about the new car changing the way the racing will unfold at Daytona? “We’re still drafting, just not lining up pushing each other. I never liked the pushing deal anyway. There’s no other form of racing where you do that, so I don’t know why it’s been so embraced here, because to me it’s not really racing. It’s having two cars line up and one guy pushes the other guy. I don’t know where that really fits into auto racing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing if the bumpers don’t line up. I never was a fan of cars pushing each other in the first place, and if they don’t, if we can’t do it at Daytona, it’s not going to hurt my feelings.”
Is there any anxiety about the unknowns associated with the new car and how it will race in the draft? “I don’t think there’s any anxiety going into it. Every year it’s still trial and error. You’re always learning new things from what we learned the year before, and this year is no different. The cars drive really stable so far, not more so than what we’ve had in the past, but they’re fairly stable. That’s the good thing about having all the race practice that we’ll have is that we’ll all have that time to learn. I don’t feel like there’s any sense of urgency more so than what we normally have going into Daytona.”
You’re entering your fifth season as a driver/owner. What has been the most enjoyable part of having the dual title? “It’s gratifying on the days like when Ryan (Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet for SHR) wins the race and we run fourth or fifth. That’s a pretty gratifying day because we’ve had a good day. But knowing that you’ve had a hand in helping somebody else have a good day, and even with the days we’ve had Danica (Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for SHR) in the car, those last two races she was excited, and being a car owner and seeing her excited about it, that’s an achievement and an accomplishment and a satisfaction that’s different than just being a driver.”
SHR will field three full-time teams in 2013. How challenging has it been getting ready for the new season with the added team and preparing for the new car? “It’s been very busy, but these guys have done a great job through the winter of catching up. It’s taken a little time to get some of the pieces and parts, but our guys have done a good job of getting ready. I’m proud of the effort they’ve put forth to get everything ready for Daytona. It’s going to be a busy spring. We’re still playing a little bit of catch-up, but these guys are putting in the time and hard work and effort, and when you go down to the shop and you see how hard these guys are working, as a car owner I’m really proud of what I see.”
What will Danica add to the overall SHR effort as a member of the three-car team? “For every hour of practice that we have with three cars on the team, that’s three hours of notes and feedback. And she has great feedback. She’s a huge asset. She’s already proven that very early last year with us, the few races that she ran. How she communicates what her car is doing is very helpful to me and Ryan (Newman).”
It’s obvious that as a racer you want to win races and championships, but how special is it when your drivers do well? “Well, you have that satisfaction of knowing you were able to put that puzzle together and give somebody that opportunity. I could go out and win 10 races and win the championship, but if Ryan (Newman) and Danica (Patrick) have a terrible year, it won’t mean as much. I would rather all of us be even and not win a championship than to have two teams that struggle and one team that’s successful. There’s a lot of pride in having a hand in making all three of those teams have the same level of success.”
What are your thoughts on your chances in the Sprint Unlimited? “I think they’re good. It’s a fun race anyway, and to get the fans involved and make them more a part of the actual format and everything, I like it. It’s going to be pretty cool to see what they come up with. Daytona is one of those tracks where you can be at the front one minute and in the back the next, so I don’t think it’s going to change the outcome. But I think Sprint has provided a great asset by having the fans involved and letting them actually be a part of the event more than just watching as spectators. They’re now essentially a race director and getting to decide the format, and I think that’s kind of cool.”
You ran a number of races last year outside of the Sprint Cup Series. Do you plan to continue that this season and if so, how often will fans be able to catch you in action at local dirt tracks across the country? “It’s something I did last year and I’m trying to actually grow it a little more. I think we made 44 or 45 Sprint Car races last year. My goal is to try to make 50 of them this year. By the time we get to Las Vegas, I think we’ll be at around 11 to 13 Sprint Car races that we’ll have run.”