Thursday, June 17, 2010

King of the Roads, Tony Stewart, All Set For This Weekend at Sonoma

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (June 15, 2010) – Tony Stewart is back among the top-12 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship point standings and he’s back at what has proven to be one of his most mastered disciplines – road course racing.

The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing comes into the first of two road course venues on the Sprint Cup schedule fresh off back-to-back top-five performances that have vaulted him from 16th to 11th in points. And with Sunday’s
Toyota/SaveMart 350k at the Infineon Raceway road course in Sonoma, Calif., next up for Stewart, expect another strong run from the two-time Sprint Cup champion.

That’s because Stewart has proven to be a road course savant despite his oval track upbringing. While some teams enlist “ringers” – road course specialists who excel is such divisions as the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and American Le Mans Series to pilot their 3,400-pound stock cars around the 10-turn, 1.99-mile layout in California’s wine country – Stewart simply rings up wins and runner-up efforts.

In 22 career road course starts – 11 at Sonoma and 11 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International – Stewart has seven victories and four second-place finishes to give him an average finish of 7.3. Ringers, meanwhile, are 0-21 at Sonoma and 0-27 at Watkins Glen.

That Stewart has become so good at turning left and right speaks to his innate ability to drive anything with four wheels and an engine as fast as humanly possible. He’s been good at road courses since his rookie season in 1999 when he qualified second at Sonoma before finishing 15th, and starting fourth at Watkins Glen before finishing sixth.

Prior to that first road course race at Sonoma in June 1999, Stewart visited the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix. He figured he needed to knock the rust off his road-racing skills, for the last time he turned left and right was in a go-kart as a 16-year-old in the World Karting Association. That was 1987, yet it was as if the time/space continuum stopped, for 12 years later, there was no rust to be found on Stewart.

He scored his first win at Sonoma in 2001, and then went on to win at Watkins Glen the very next year. Since then, Stewart has had only six road-course finishes outside the top-two. He won again at Sonoma in 2005 and picked up his other road course wins at The Glen in 2004,2005, 2007 and 2009 – the last of which put him in a league of his own, for Stewart became the winningest driver at Watkins Glen with five total victories – a mark that is unsurpassed in NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One and sports cars.

Beyond NASCAR, Stewart has proven to be a formidable road course threat, so much so that he’s been brought in to contest road course regulars at such prestigious events as the Rolex 24 Hours At Daytona, where in 2004 he nearly won the race with co-drivers Andy Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The trio combined to lead 355 of 526 laps and had a commanding five-lap advantage with less than 20 minutes remaining in the marathon race, but a mechanical problem cost them their shot at victory, leaving them a disappointing fourth. Stewart came back to the Rolex 24 in 2005 with Wallace and Jan Lammars to finish a career-best third.

Stewart finally got his road course win at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway when he won Round III of IROC XXX en route to the series championship in 2006.

All that experience and all that success now join with an upward trajectory that has Stewart and his Darian Grubb-led No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice team primed for a summertime run to the top of the championship standings. Consider this: of Stewart’s 37 career Sprint Cup victories, six have come in the month of June, with 27 others being earned between July and the end of the season in November. This June has so far yielded a third-place finish at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and a fifth-place result at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. With Sonoma next on the June docket, another win at the twisty venue is certainly in the cards for Stewart. And with apologies to Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, it’s Stewart who’s back in the saddle again.

“We just keep plugging away and doing what we do. I’m not as panicked about the top-12 right now as I think some of the guys that are close to that bubble. If we just go out and rifle off top-fives like this, we won’t have to worry about it. We’ll be there.”

“I just like the road courses. I’ve always liked Sonoma. It’s really a driver’s track. It’s tough to make your car drive perfect all day. You can have a really good car, but it’s going to slide around and you’re going to struggle for grip, and that’s what makes it so fun. You have to do the work behind the steering wheel.”

“You’ve just got to have a good handling car. Aerodynamics are not the least bit important at Sonoma, which is great because it’s one of the few tracks that we go to that we don’t have to worry about aero balance or anything like that. It’s just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day and having good pit stops and pit strategy and staying out of trouble.

“A lot can happen at Sonoma. You’ve got to be patient all day. You get a lot of cautions there and a lot of guys end up beating and banging on each other. I mean, the cars look like they’ve been to a race at Martinsville (Va.) because it’s a short road course. Save that car for the last 20 laps because that’s the critical time. Do what you have to do to get through the first 90 laps, but those last 20 are the ones when you really have to go, and you need your car to be in one piece to make it happen.”

“I was surprised because I don’t remember him in the past being a big road course racer. I don’t remember ever having to race him at a road course race. But man, he was good. We ran the whole race together. We seemed to be on the same pit sequence during the whole day. Whether I could see him in front of me or in the mirror, we were always right around each other. When we were at the back of the pack and had tires and had to drive through the field, we were matching each other lap for lap. At the end, it became a shootout between us and it wasn’t surprising at that point of the day, but during the day with him running the pace he was running, I wasn’t used to seeing that from him. But he did it consistently all day, and obviously he’s picked it up and has got it figured out.”

“He kept picking the right-side lane on the restarts, which was very smart. He made the right decision, where most of the guys were picking the left-side lane during the day. He was really the only guy that I remember that actually picked the right side, especially when it counted. He
made the most of it, because it got us hung on the outside. We just kept the pressure on him and tried to force him into a mistake and he never made it. He just was very composed and solid there to where on all of those restarts we couldn’t get him to bobble.”

“There were definitely times when you wanted to be on one side or the other. One restart you’d be in the wrong line and it’d hurt you, but the next time you’d be on the side you wanted and it would help you, so I think it added a lot of excitement. It made it fun for us drivers, because instead of being 20th and 20 rows back, you’re 20th and only 10 rows back. You had a shot and knew you could make a run at the leader.”

“The two tracks, while both road courses, are still pretty different. At Watkins Glen you don’t have to finesse the throttle near as much as you do at Sonoma. When you get the car turned, you can get in the gas and then stay in the gas. Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma. I think there are the same amounts of passing opportunities, but because of the speeds that you’re able to run at The Glen, brakes become a much bigger factor than I think they are at Sonoma. It’s pretty much a horsepower track. It just happens to be in the form of a road course. Sonoma has a lot less grip in the racetrack. You have to really be careful with the throttle there, and that puts more of the race in the driver’s hands. If anything, Sonoma is probably more technical than Watkins Glen because there’s hardly any time where you get a chance to rest. You’re always either shifting or accelerating or braking or turning or doing something. At Watkins Glen, at least on the frontstretch and on the backstretch, there are three straightaways where you get a little bit of time to take a break. Watkins Glen seems to be more in the crew’s hands and the engine builder’s hands. Obviously, there’s still a job that I need to do in the racecar, but I’m relying on the equipment and the crew a lot more at Watkins Glen.”

“It’s definitely a place I feel like we’ve got the potential to win, even before we make a single lap. We seem to have taken to the road racing side of it fairly well and just have had good luck with it. I don’t know that there’s a secret to it, necessarily. I think a lot of it is that when we get to a road course, we look forward to being there. There are some drivers that don’t look forward to the road course races and we’re one of those teams that actually look forward to it. We like the change in pace and we get to do something different for a weekend. That’s something we always look forward to and it kind of gets us boosted up for the weekend.”

“I’ve just always liked it. I won a national championship racing go-karts on road courses, so the concept of what it took to win races on road courses wasn’t totally unknown to me, but driving cars with suspension, and definitely driving cars that you had to shift, that’s something that came relatively easy to me, and still comes easy to me as far as knowing how to synchronize the gears without having to use the help of the clutch. Even in the sports cars that I’ve driven with guys who have driven road courses all their life, I’ve gotten out of the car and the crew has torn the gearboxes apart and said that the dog rings in my transmission look better than when those guys are done with a transmission. There’s just something about the shifting side of it that’s been really natural to me, and it’s fun. I like having a different discipline to race on. I like having the opportunity to do something twice a year that we don’t get a shot at doing very often. I take the same amount of pride that someone like Ron Fellows or Scott Pruett does when they come into a road course race. I take that same pride in running well that they do in these cars. I don’t look at it from the standpoint that it’s a negative weekend. I look at it as a positive, that it’s something we enjoy and I feel like that gives us a leg up on most of the guys we race with at these tracks.”

“I love the two road courses. It’s nice because it kind of breaks up the monotony of the season. We do the same thing every week and it’s nice to have two road course races thrown in the mix that give us a chance to do something a little bit off-center for all of us. It’s kind of like the ‘Prelude’ with no dirt added, unless you drive off, which a lot of us do. We still get a dirt aspect in it, I guess.”

(The “Prelude” is the annual Prelude to the Dream, an all-star dirt Late Model race that features many of NASCAR’s top drivers at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, a half-mile clay oval owned by Stewart. Televised live on HBO Pay-Per-View, the event has raised more than $2 million for charity. This year’s event happened on June 9 and it benefitted four of the nation’s top children’s hospitals: Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Cincinnati
Children’s, Levin Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. – Ed.)

“I’m not a guy that likes to go to the wineries and I don’t understand all the wine stuff, so that’s not really my deal. I’m not a wine drinker at all, so I love driving around and just seeing the scenery. I’ll sometimes go into San Francisco and walk around and see all the touristy stuff there. It’s just a part of the country that you can’t go anywhere else the rest of the year and see the scenery and landscape that we see out there. I’ll just get in the car in the evening and drive around for an hour or so and just drive somewhere around where we are staying and check out an area of the countryside we haven’t seen before. Sounds kind of boring, but that’s what I like to do – just get in the car and drive around.”

“He (Stewart's Father, Nelson) never let me settle for second. He didn’t like it when we ran second, and he knew that I didn’t like it when we ran second. If he saw that I wasn’t giving 100 percent, then he was on me pretty hard about it. He pushed me to be better.

“He never pressured me to be the best racecar driver in the world, but he did want me to be the best racecar driver that I could be. He never compared me to anybody else. He expected that what I could do was what I could do. He never said that because this guy over here could do something, that I should be able to do it, too. He pushed me hard, but he was fair about it. That’s probably why you see so much fire in me today, because he always wanted me to be the best that I could be.

“He’s my dad, so obviously he’s seen and done a lot of things that I haven’t. He’s given me some good advice over the years, but probably the best advice he ever gave me was to just remember the people who have helped me, because somewhere along the ladder that you’re climbing up, you’re eventually going to climb back down, and you’re going to meet those people again sometime.

“I’ve watched the folks that he’s dealt with in his career and in mine, and we’re still friends with all the people that we’ve raced with in the past. We never felt like we were better than anybody else. We always kept those relationships, and we always treated those people the way
they treated us.”


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