New Car. Same Result?
KERNERSVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 14, 2011) - It's trivia time.
Question: Name the one driver other than Tony Stewart who has won the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in the last six years?
Answer: Kevin Harvick in 2007.
Beginning in 2005, Stewart has won the opening round of the Nationwide Series at Daytona every year with the exception of 2007, when Harvick proved victorious. In that race, Stewart finished eighth. Every other year, it's Stewart who's been to victory lane, and he's done it driving for three different car owners - Joe Gibbs in 2008, Rick Hendrick in 2009 and Harvick in 2005, 2006 and 2010.
As he defends his DRIVE4COPD 300 win, Stewart will do it from familiar confines. He'll again be behind the wheel of a No. 4 Oreo/Ritz Chevrolet Impala, and it will again be prepared by Kevin Harvick Inc. (KHI).
Stewart's history with KHI is strong. After 41 career Nationwide Series starts stretched out over five seasons, Stewart finally scored his first Nationwide Series victory when he won the 2005 season-opener at Daytona driving for what was then an upstart KHI. While it was Stewart's first Nationwide Series win, it was also the first for the team owned by Harvick and wife DeLana. When Stewart came back to Daytona a year later and successfully reclaimed his victory, it was career win No. 2 for Stewart and career win No. 2 for KHI.
Now they're back together at the racetrack that put KHI on the map and provided Stewart his long-awaited Nationwide Series victory. Ironically, Stewart has nine career Nationwide Series wins and KHI also has nine career Nationwide Series wins heading into this year's DRIVE4COPD 300.
Coming right out of the box and winning on the Nationwide Series' biggest stage has become a familiar storyline for Stewart, and if he is to repeat the performance yet again and go for four straight wins in the season-opener, it will be hugely appropriate as Stewart is carrying the colors of two products that always delight right out of the box.
His representation of Kraft Foods' Oreo and Ritz brands on the No. 4 Chevrolet fielded by KHI is a byproduct of the company's holistic partnership with Stewart and the Sprint Cup team he co-owns with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas - Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
The iconic Oreo cookie and Ritz cracker brands are SHR's official cookie and cracker, with Stewart and his Sprint Cup teammate Ryan Newman carrying the brand's colors on their respective uniforms and cars. But adding some flavor to the pairing of Stewart and Kraft Foods is the No. 4 Oreo/Ritz Chevrolet. Just as it's the figurative vehicle to carry the partnership of Oreo and Ritz with Stewart, it's also the literal vehicle Stewart will use in his attempt to put Oreo and Ritz inside Daytona's victory lane for a second straight year.
While there are a lot of similarities between last year's race and this year's, there is one major difference - the car. A new generation of Nationwide Series car is running full-time this season after a four-race rollout in 2010. While it's akin to the kind of car Stewart competes with regularly in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it's still an unknown - at least to Stewart, whose first time in the new-generation Nationwide Series car will come this week in the practice and qualifying sessions that lead in to the DRIVE4COPD 300.
But with Stewart's diverse racing background where in more than 30 years he's driven and won in nearly every kind of racecar imaginable - from USAC Sprint Cars and Indy cars to NASCAR stock cars and dirt late models - the change, while substantial, is one that Stewart has quickly and successfully adapted to before.
So with one shot at a Nationwide Series win this season, for Daytona is the only Nationwide Series race he will contest in 2011, Stewart plans on being "won" and done when the checkered flag drops on the DRIVE4COPD 300.
Tony Stewart, Driver of the No. 4 Oreo/Ritz NASCAR Nationwide Series Chevrolet Impala at Daytona
Your first career Nationwide Series win came with KHI at Daytona in February 2005, and you won with them again at Daytona in February 2006, and again last year. What's it like to be back driving for them at Daytona in 2011?
"I'm excited about it. I love Kevin and DeLana. They're some of my best friends. I enjoy the opportunity to be able to drive with them again. I've had fun with them. It's always nice to know that DeLana is there on race day and supportive of what we're doing. She's just as into it when Kevin's behind the wheel. It's fun. It's like driving for some of your best friends."
Three of your 15 career wins at Daytona have come with KHI. Can you talk about their preparation leading into that race?
"It's a small team size-wise, but as far as equipment and everything, Kevin and DeLana prepare cars that are some of the best cars in the Nationwide series. To have a KHI car and to have Oreo and Ritz with us for that race, it makes for a potent combination."
A lot of your success at Daytona in the Nationwide Series has been with KHI. Any reason for that in particular, or is it a combination of a lot of things?
"I think it's because of the attention to detail that Kevin and DeLana put into their racecars. You see it in their Truck program. You see it in their Nationwide program. They just do everything first class. I always have the confidence when I get in one of their cars that I'm in just as competitive a car as I could be with any other organization out there. They're first class, and that's the kind of group that you want to be with when you do a one-off race like this. You have that confidence. You don't worry about anything. You know that they're giving you the best equipment that you can get in that series. It's always fun. It's fun to drive for one of your good friends like Kevin and DeLana, but at the same time knowing that they've got really good racecars just tops it all off."
Kevin and DeLana Harvick have said that you racing for them in the early years of KHI helped get their race team off the ground. As a still relatively new Sprint Cup team owner, can you see how valuable your time behind the wheel was for them?
"I think they underestimate what they did for themselves. They put together a great organization, which enabled me to win with them and for Kevin to win in his own car. They've had the capability and the opportunity to be in victory lane a lot since they started that team, and we've got another shot to get another win for them this weekend at Daytona."
What do you know about the new Nationwide Series car? Is it like the current Sprint Cup car or are you just going off of what you've been told?
"I'm kind of going into it blind. I think the fact that the track is freshly repaved and is going to have a lot of grip - that will take away any of the issues that I would worry about on the handling side. I think the cars will drive really well. It's just a matter of going out and doing our job."
On that note, how much of a challenge will Daytona be because there will be two new variables - the track and a new car? Plus, you have a record to uphold.
"Well, it's definitely going to be challenging. I think some of the things that we learned at the Cup test will most definitely apply to the Nationwide Series race, too. Having Harvick as a teammate down there will be a valuable asset to us, obviously. We'll go do the best job we can for KHI and for Oreos and Ritz. We've been very fortunate the last few years. We'll go down there and do the best we can and hopefully get another one."
You're used to jumping into unfamiliar racecars and adapting quickly. Is it from your upbringing in racing?
"I think so. It's always hard when you get in a car with a different organization. The seats are always just a little bit different. Just everything, whether it's switches on the dash to where the gauges are located, all that stuff just seems to be different. Having that ability to jump around from car to car is definitely an asset when it comes time to doing a one-off deal like this."
How long does it take for you to get acclimated to a new car?
"As far as driving the car, it normally takes three to four laps, but with it being Daytona and as smooth as it is now, I think it's going to make it that much easier."
You've won the first race of the Nationwide Series season five times, including the last three. How nice is it to start the year with a win, and how much confidence does it give you going into the Daytona 500?
"It's always a bonus when you can win on Saturday before going into the biggest race of the year on Sunday. To get a Nationwide win there, that's how you like to go to bed the night before the Daytona 500, knowing that you've got that trophy sitting out there on your desk from what you did Saturday afternoon."
How difficult is it to win one race at Daytona, never mind three in a row?
"Restrictor-plate races at Daytona are always a wild-card race. You never know who's going to win. We were fortunate enough to win one and then back it up the next year. To do it back-to-back-to back is something we're really proud of."
What makes you so successful at Daytona, particularly in the season-opening Nationwide Series race?
"I don't know. I've had a lot of luck there. A lot of it has just been being at the right place at the right time, and making calls that were a little edgy on pit strategy to put ourselves in position at the end. I've had great cars to drive every time there. We've just been one of those guys that everybody knows that when we're out there, we're a threat in that division. So when it comes to the end of it, we've had some pretty good help."
In order to win a restrictor-plate race, you've got to have drafting help. How do you get that help?
"I think it's more a situation of guys finding the fast cars, and you finding the guys that you know are going to go with you because they know you're quick. If they go with you, they're going to get you to the front, which is going to get them to the front. It's kind of 'help me, help you.'"
Are there certain guys you've worked with at restrictor-plate races in the past that you know you're going to draft with?
"You have a list of guys that you know you're drafting with, and then there's another list of guys that you're alright with, and there's another list of guys that you don't want to be around. So you always know who the guys are you want to be with and who you'd rather not see anywhere near you."
Is there any strategy involved in running a restrictor-plate race, or is it just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented?
"The strategy is making sure you've got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities you have to make a very quick decision. You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something, there's not much you can do about it."
Are you going to bankrupt Kraft Foods, the parent company of Oreo and Ritz, because in addition to sponsoring you, they're giving you and the race team all the product you want?
"We won't bankrupt them from a cash standpoint, but we're going to hurt them on product, for sure."
Do you take a sense of pride in knowing that here's another marquee company in Kraft Foods with some iconic brands, Oreo and Ritz, signing on with you, and you're getting to represent them in one of the biggest races of the year?
"Yes. It makes me proud of my organization and the people we have here who have worked so hard to put us in those positions to have major companies like Kraft Foods come on board. It legitimizes what we're doing here and shows that we're a company that these Fortune 500 companies can have hope and faith in."