KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (May 7, 2013) – She’s a mature lady with a robust personality and a devil-may-care attitude. A little rough around the edges, she has broken the hearts of many. Her take-no-prisoners approach is simply irresistible to her most ardent suitors. And like a moth to a flame, they all keep coming back for more.
For Tony Stewart, however, she is more than just formidable. She’s the one that got away. And year after year, she seemingly stays just out of reach of Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing.
She is none other than the “Lady in Black,” the nickname given to venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, site of the 64th running of the Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Saturday night.
While Stewart has accomplished much in his 15 seasons as a Sprint Cup driver – three championships and 47 career victories – he still has yet to conquer Darlington. The 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval is one of just two racetracks where Stewart has yet to record a Sprint Cup victory, the other being Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, which was added to the schedule in 2011 and has hosted only two Sprint Cup races.
Stewart has always had a healthy respect for Darlington. From the first time he lapped the track in a stock car, which was August 1996 in a Pontiac fielded by the late Harry Ranier in what was then known as the NASCAR Busch Series (now Nationwide Series), Stewart has followed the sage advice bestowed on him from the sport’s veterans – race the racetrack.
Since becoming a full-time Sprint Cup driver in 1999 where in his first Sprint Cup race at Darlington he finished a respectable sixth, Stewart has posted solid results. In 20 career Sprint Cup starts at Darlington, Stewart has four top-fives and 11 top-10s. His average finish is 11.8 and he has finished on the lead lap in all but four of those 20 races, earning him a lap completion rate of 98.9 percent. And in the last eight Sprint Cup races at Darlington, no driver has completed more green-flag passes than Stewart (496).
Although Stewart has yet to score a Sprint Cup win at Darlington, he has found success at NASCAR’s oldest track. He dominated the 2008 Nationwide Series race by leading three times for a race-high 90 laps to score his seventh career Nationwide Series win.
NASCAR’s annual pilgrimage to its version of Augusta National is again upon us, and again Stewart will attempt to woo the “Lady in Black”. As he slings his Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet through the corners – especially turns three and four which some might argue make the real Amen Corner – Stewart will drive intent on catching the Lady’s eye. In his 21st attempt at earning a Sprint Cup victory at Darlington, Stewart hopes the adage “persistence pays” means exactly that, so he can take the Lady and her nearly $6 million dollar purse.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Why is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver’s cap?
“A lot of it has to do with the history of the track. If you can say you won a race at Darlington – that’s a feather in your cap. That’s something to be proud of, knowing that you’re in a group of drivers with names like Pearson and Petty – the pioneers of our sport who you hear stories about the races they ran there and the races they won there.
“Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. You don’t see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it’s a track that’s like winning at Bristol. It’s the same type of feeling – knowing that you conquered something that’s very hard to obtain.”
It may not be in Sprint Cup, but you have won at Darlington. Even though it was a NASCAR Nationwide Series race in 2008, how did it feel to finally win for the first time there?
“With the rich heritage and history at Darlington – to win there and be the first guy to win after they resurfaced it – it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. It’s just cool to win at Darlington. You think back to guys like David Pearson who were so good there. This series is just so deep in history, and this is one of those tracks where the history goes as deep as NASCAR does. To finally get a win at Darlington was a huge honor for me.”
Does that win help in any way for what you want to accomplish when you return for this weekend’s Southern 500?
“It doesn’t hurt. Just because you won in a Nationwide Series car doesn’t guarantee success in the Cup car. We still have to go out and do our job on the Cup side. The cars drive totally different. We’ve got a lot more horsepower with the Cup cars than the Nationwide cars have, so the driving style is different. But still, we had a good run with the Nationwide car and then a good run in the Cup car, and I think that, as much as anything, gives you confidence.”
Coming from an open-wheel background, was Darlington a place that even open-wheel guys had respect for simply because of the track’s history?
“Absolutely. As much as we know about the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I think people underestimate how much we know about Darlington and the history of that track, and how hard it is to win races there. I guess that’s why a Sprint Cup win at Darlington is something that’s really important to me.”
Darlington is known as a track where beating and banging happens, maybe not so much between competitors by certainly between competitors and the wall. Does aerodynamics play a role at Darlington and, if so, how important is it to keep a straight racecar?
“Aerodynamics plays a role everywhere we go nowadays. Martinsville might be the only track where aerodynamics doesn’t really play a role anymore. So even at a place like Darlington, you’ve got to make sure you keep the fenders straight because you need every bit of downforce you can get.”
Darlington was repaved back in 2007. Last year, the track surface appeared gray and it looked like there were multiple racing lines. Has the tracked aged to a point where it’s getting to be like it was in the old days, where tire management trumps track position?
“The track is so narrow you don’t have the luxury you have at some of the other tracks we go to where you can use numerous different spots on the racetrack. (Turns) one and two, you’re pretty much line committed. (Turns) three and four, last time we were there you had guys all over the racetrack. They were all the way underneath the hash marks on the first level of the banking. It wasn’t even on the racetrack. It was on the highest level of the apron. I actually tried to do it, too. I was running spots on the racetrack I had never run before. The track is definitely losing grip, and at last year’s race, it seemed like it took all night before the track gripped back up.”