KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (April 17, 2013) – Tony Stewart’s success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is well known. Three Sprint Cup championships. Forty-seven Sprint Cup victories. Fourteen Sprint Cup poles. One hundred and seventy four top-fives and 283 top-10s in 507 career Sprint Cup starts, with a total of 12,538 laps led.
Now in his 40s, Stewart’s ability to maintain that level of success comes from an old-school mentality that appears new school in an age of specialization.
In an era where NASCAR drivers race in NASCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series drivers race in IndyCar, sports-car drivers race in sports cars, Stewart races nearly everything, everywhere. After wheeling his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing around the tracks that dot the 38-race Sprint Cup schedule, Stewart is prone to jump in his jet and find a race at Somewhere Speedway, U.S.A. and wheel a high-horsepower winged Sprint Car around dirt bullrings from upstate New York to inland California and everywhere in between.
Stewart’s roots are in dirt-track racing, and he’s always kept his hands dirty. He’s been a mainstay in grassroots motorsports despite moving up the racing ladder from USAC to IndyCar and then NASCAR in the late 90s. But Stewart’s extra-curricular racing activities ramped up in 2011, with a strong slate of Sprint Car races that gave him the confidence to run in the elite World of Outlaws (WoO) STP Sprint Car Series.
In 2011, Stewart won his first WoO race on July 27 at Ohsweken Speedway in Ontario, Canada. Coincidentally, 2011 was the year Stewart won his third Sprint Cup championship during an epic run in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup where Stewart won five races to take the title in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.
More Sprint Car races were added to the docket in 2012, where Stewart ran approximately 90 total races, a figure that includes the 38 races he ran in the Sprint Cup Series. Stewart has slightly upped the ante in 2013 with 100 races on his schedule.
One of the more recent extra-curricular races came April 6 at Selinsgrove (Pa.) Speedway. After Stewart finished final practice at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, he flew from Virginia to Pennsylvania to compete in the Empire Super Sprint (ESS) 360 Winged Sprint Car race. All Stewart did was set a new track qualifying record (17.168 seconds at 111.053 mph) before winning his eight-lap heat race and then his 30-lap feature – at a track Stewart had never visited before. Nine hours later he was making his hospitality rounds for his sponsors at Martinsville before attending the mandatory driver’s meeting.
And following a disappointing 21st-place finish last Saturday night in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Stewart hit the reset button by racing his winged Sprint Car at Susquehanna Speedway Park in York Haven, Pa. At the track’s fourth annual Sprint Car Spring Classic, Stewart finished 10th.
Stewart will perform this unique bit of double duty again this weekend when the Sprint Cup Series comes to Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. While Stewart’s day job will consist of practicing and qualifying his Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy on Friday at the 1.5-mile oval, upon completion of those duties, Stewart will depart for Paducah, Ky., where he’ll compete in the WoO feature at Paducah International Raceway, a track Stewart co-owns with Bob Sargent and Ken Schrader. There, he’ll look to score his fourth career WoO feature victory.
It will provide fun for Stewart, but also valuable experience that he’ll carry back to Kansas, all of which will make Stewart better at a track where he’s already good. Really good.
In 14 career Sprint Cup starts at Kansas, Stewart has two wins, six top-fives, nine top-10s and has led 152 laps. He’s one of only four drivers who have won more than once at Kansas, the others being Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle. No driver has won three Sprint Cup races at Kansas. But with plenty of Sprint Car experience, Stewart could stand out by getting a third Kansas win come Sunday’s STP 400.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
When you have the kind of success that you had at Selinsgrove Speedway, what does it do for you? How does it impact what you’re doing in NASCAR?
“It makes me feel good, especially at a weekend like we had at Martinsville, which was a tough weekend for us. We just never could find what the car liked and what it was really wanting. And it’s nights like Saturday night when you have a good night – a perfect night, really. We broke the track record, won our heat and won the main, and we had to do it from the back. That’s the perfect kind of night. It gave me balance that weekend. Saturday when we left Martinsville, we kind of knew we were in trouble for Sunday, but instead of being in the bus all night and worrying about it and fretting over it, I went and raced and won and came back to the track excited. I came to the driver’s meeting the next morning excited and got in the racecar excited. A lot of times, a good night of racing the night before gives you a lot of momentum going into the next day.”
To the layperson, it’s hard to understand why you would jet off from a Sprint Cup venue on a Friday or Saturday night to go run a dirt track somewhere. Explain why you do it.
“It’s like hitting a reset button for me. It’s a lot of effort, a lot of money and a lot of time involved to do all this, but it’s worth it. It’s worthwhile because it’s something not everybody can do. I’m in a fortunate position where I have the resources to do it, but I also don’t have a wife and children. I have a German Shepherd who doesn’t care where we go, he’s just happy to go with us. I have the flexibility a lot of these other drivers don’t. But even if they had the time, I’m not sure they’d want to go run 70 dirt races on top of a 38-race Cup schedule. It’s just what I enjoy. It’s my release. I’m a very competitive person. I like my downtime, but I like being busy on the weekends. I enjoy being able to go run dirt races and Cup races. Being busy with all of that keeps me sharp. I ran the most dirt races I ever ran last year since I’ve been a Cup driver with 46, and with that I probably had one of the most fun years of my life even though it wasn’t my best year in Cup. But the nine races we won in the Sprint Car helped balance that out. It’s a balancing act for me. That’s what I’m into. Other people are into golf, but going racing on Friday night and Saturday night and during the week is my golf. Until I can’t do it anymore, this is what I want to do.”
You’ve said that running Sprint Cars on dirt makes you sharper. How does it apply to what you’re doing in NASCAR?
“I think it helps on the restarts, for sure. I’m definitely more aggressive on the restarts. In Sprint Car racing, you have to get a lot done at the start and on restarts, and I think that part has really been a positive and really been a help in making me more aggressive. Even though Cup races are much longer races, being able to get guys while they’re getting up to speed or while their tires are building pressure, that more aggressive attitude helps me on the restarts because I can pick up an extra spot here and there.”
You’re going to end up running nearly 100 races this year, more than half of which will be in a Sprint Car on dirt. Why so many?
“It’s something I’ve been doing a lot this year, but the winged Sprint Cars probably caught me off guard the most. You’re driving a car that with the driver weighs 1,450 pounds and has 925 horsepower. It has the big wing on top of it. Anything you run that has a wing, it has so much downforce it definitely keeps you on your toes.
“When I was running Indy cars, you had to hit your marks. You had to be so precise on hitting the same spot every time. You find that same trend with the dirt cars, but the track changes throughout the night. You add a cushion to it, then you start throwing other variables in there that you’re not used to. That’s probably been the hardest thing for me, but that’s also what has made it such fun for me.”
What is the competition on dirt like these days compared to when you raced on dirt regularly in the 1980s and 1990s?
“When I came up through the USAC ranks, I didn’t run any winged Sprint Car stuff. It was a different chapter, to be honest. I never was really involved in the winged Sprint Car side until after I had started with Joe Gibbs Racing. We started our first World of Outlaws team in 2001 with Danny Lasoski, and it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that I started running the winged Sprint Car a lot. Man, I’m telling you, the competition is tough. You’ve got guys like Kyle Larson and Donny Schatz and Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell – you’ve got the same guys that have always been good, but you’ve got a young group of guys like Larson. The competition is as tough in Sprint Car racing as it has ever been. There are more teams than ever that have been able to go out each week and put together a good night.”
This will be the second race since Kansas was repaved. How much will the track have changed since last fall?
“It will have changed some just due to weather. The thing with the track last fall is that it was so smooth – even the transitions were smooth. We knew going in that it would have a ton of grip and a ton of speed, but it was smoother than most highways you go down. The key is getting more rubber on the racetrack. The more rubber that gets transferred, the better the racing surface is. It was better by the end of the race weekend last year and it will keep getting better the more laps we run.”
What is the biggest challenge to overcome during the first part of this new season?
“I think just learning the new car and finding the combination. We’re basically starting from scratch. There are some things that you take away from what we did last year, but anytime you have a major change in the bodystyle like we have this year and the rules changes that we’re having, that’s the No. 1 obstacle – trying to figure out what this car likes and dislikes so it gives you a direction.”