KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (May 22, 2013) – The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway has long been one of the “crown jewel” races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, along with the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and since 1994 when stock cars debuted at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Brickyard 400. Each of these events garners extra attention given their historical implications and unique attributes, further distinguishing them from their counterparts on the 36-race Sprint Cup calendar.
The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s richest race. The Southern 500 is the series’ oldest superspeedway race. The Brickyard 400 marks NASCAR’s ascendency, because prior to 1994, only Indy cars competed at the venerable oval. And by virtue of being NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 tests man and machine like no other race on the marathon-like Sprint Cup schedule.
A full 100 miles longer than any other Sprint Cup race, the Coca-Cola 600 starts in the full light of day and ends in the dark of night. Much is made of the endurance a driver must have to negotiate the typically temperamental 1.5-mile oval in a four-wheeled, 850-horspower, sauna-hot laboratory in a race that surpasses four hours.
For Tony Stewart, it’s a lot of hyperbole.
Stewart built his career by racing anything, anywhere, anytime he could. Often times, it translated into running multiple events in different series in the same day. Stewart had to operate at a manic pace, but the effort obviously paid off, first evidenced by him winning the USAC “Triple Crown” in 1995 when he earned the USAC Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown titles in a single year. Those seeds planted future
success, for in 15 years as a Sprint Cup driver, Stewart has amassed 47 point-paying victories and three championships (2002, 2005 and 2011).
Stewart continues to return to his racing roots, supplementing his NASCAR program with various Sprint Car races, including the occasional World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series event. On any given night, Stewart can be found competing at select dirt races after working his regular job – driving the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Switching racing genres keeps Stewart sharp, and while barnstorming dirt track across America doesn’t always move the media’s needle, one high-profile bit of extra-curricular racing certainly did.
Twice on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Stewart has competed in two of the world’s biggest races – the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. The grueling, one-day trek, known as “Double Duty,” saw Stewart compete in an Indy car at Indianapolis before flying to Concord, N.C., to compete in the Coca-Cola 600 that evening at Charlotte. He became the first driver to complete both races in the same day, finishing ninth and fourth, respectively. Stewart drove a total of 1,090 miles. Stewart repeated this feat in 2001, when he drove an Indy car for Chip Ganassi at Indy. He bettered his mark from 1999 by finishing on the lead lap in sixth before jetting off to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600. He improved that finish, as well, coming home third in the 600-miler. Stewart completed all 1,100 miles – breaking his record for most racing miles driven in one day.
Those races proved that Stewart is most comfortable behind the wheel of a racecar, regardless of its sparse and claustrophobic confines. With NASCAR’s longest race up next for Stewart, it’s just another day at the office.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ve won just about every race in Sprint Cup. How important would it be to add a Coca-Cola 600 win to your resume?
“Any time you win a race at Charlotte, it’s big. It’s a speedway with a lot of history and, obviously, the Coke 600 is a huge event. I’m a big fan of shorter races nowadays, but the 600 is truly a special event, with it being on Memorial Day weekend and the history of the Coke 600, when it was known as the World 600. There’s just a lot of tradition that surrounds the month of May in Charlotte. So, this is a big race. It’s an important race to win.”
Even though the two races take place on the same racetrack, how different is the All-Star Race from the Coca-Cola 600?
“We go from the shortest race of the year to the longest race of the year. The main difference, besides the distance, is that the Coke 600 starts in the daytime and ends at night, whereas the All-Star Race starts and finishes at night. We go from a sprint race to an endurance race.”
You’ve had a handful of races in your career you feel like you should’ve won, but is the 2008 Coca-Cola 600 one that sticks out most?
“Yeah, that’s definitely the one that sticks out the most in my mind. I mean, we had a five-second lead with three laps to go. We lost the right-front tire, but it wasn’t because of a mistake by Goodyear. It was the fact that we had run 100 laps on the right-side tires, so it just physically melted the bead on the right-front. So it wasn’t any fault of Goodyear’s. It was just circumstances.”
You’re still the only driver who has a top-10 in the Indy 500 and a top-10 in the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
“We’re still the only guy who’s completed all 1,100 miles of the double duty, which is something I’m really proud of. I think the best two finishes we had was sixth in the 500 and third in the 600. It makes for a very, very long day. When you’re done with the 600, after running Indy and the flight and helicopter rides and police escorts and all that during the day, you’re very, very content to lay your head on a pillow. And even when you do that, it still feels like it’s not stopped moving, yet.”
Your first year of the “Double” – 1999 – you said you felt like you were hallucinating during the last 100 miles of the Coca-Cola 600. Is that true?
“The first year we were so worried about dehydration that I drank and I drank and I drank and I drank. I just never ate enough solid, nutritious food the night before. And the day of the race, I wasn’t hungry because I was drinking so much to try to ensure that I was being hydrated. I got my body so out of whack that, by the time the 600 was done in Charlotte, I’d had enough. I was hungry 50 laps into the race. It’s a 400-lap race in the 600, so 50 laps into it, it was still daylight. It was early in the race and there wasn’t a drive-thru in sight. It made for a long day. We actually tried to get one of Bobby Labonte’s PowerBars – try to get something in me to tide me over until the race was over. It didn’t work. I got two bites of it and two bites did not make it the next 350 laps around Charlotte. It was a good learning experience. I think we finished ninth and fourth that year in the two races. It was a good learning year. We got our feet wet and raised a lot of money for charity that first year. Then we did it two years later with Ganassi at Indy and Gibbs in Charlotte. We had a nutritionist who was with us the entire month of May, so I was in a lot better shape. The first year, my girlfriend drove me home and I was sick the whole ride. The second time around, I drove her home and she slept. So, I was in a lot better shape the second time.”
Do you ever want to get back to Indy and run the 500?
“In my heart? Absolutely. I would love to do it. The problem with it is that Indy cars have become so competitive now. There are so many things that have changed since I ran Indy cars so many years ago, I’m not sure I would be up to speed and be able to get competitive enough, quickly enough. I have all the confidence in the world the cars I would drive would be competitive. But to really do it and do it right, and to feel like you have a legitimate shot to win the Indy 500, you would have to start at the beginning of the year with the team you’re going to race with during the month of May.”
Fellow Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch tested an Indy car earlier this month. Did it reinvigorate your interest in the month of May?
“I never lose interest in the month of May, and I was really excited to see Kurt have the opportunity to test an Indy car. There are so many things you do in racing, and there are only so many truly marquee events in the world, and in Indy car racing, the Indy 500 is it. It’s a great opportunity. He had a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but the one thing he’s got on his side is an overwhelming amount of driving talent, and that helps with that. He’s got a great car owner with Michael Andretti, who’s not only an owner, but he’s been a driver. You really couldn’t ask for better leadership than what he’s got. Michael has so much to offer Kurt in terms of knowledge and first-hand experience. So, it really seems like a natural pairing, in my opinion.”