KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Feb. 11, 2014) – With snow falling as teams departed North Carolina for the warmth of Daytona Beach, Fla., the summer of 2013 seemed a long time ago, where hot and humid days ran together.
But there’s one date in particular – Monday, Aug. 5 – that stands out for those at Stewart-Haas Racing and the NASCAR industry as a whole. It was late in the evening when at a dirt track in Iowa, Tony Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS he co-owns with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, crashed his sprint car and flipped, breaking his right tibia and fibula.
The day prior, Stewart finished ninth in the Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. It was Stewart’s 521st career Sprint Cup start, all made consecutively since his Sprint Cup debut Feb. 14, 1999 in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
That Stewart would miss the final 15 races of the 2013 Sprint Cup season and not return to a racecar until Feb. 14, 2014 – the opening day of practice for Sprint Cup cars at Budweiser Speedweeks – wasn’t something people gave much thought to…until they had to.
It was strange to see the likes of Max Papis, Austin Dillon and Mark Martin wheeling Stewart’s signature Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet. But as a new NASCAR season dawns, familiarity returns. Stewart, perhaps better known by his nickname “Smoke”, is back.
#SmokeWillRise isn’t just a hashtag. It’s the return of one of the sport’s best – behind the wheel of a racecar and behind the microphone of a press conference.
After a 15-race layoff, Stewart will make Sprint Cup career start No. 522 in the 56th running of the Daytona 500 Feb. 23. And after 15 Daytona 500 starts where winning the “Great American Race” has proven elusive for Stewart, his chances in this year’s Daytona 500 are perhaps his best yet.
In what could very well be a “Sweet 16” for the ages, Stewart enters his 16th Daytona 500 with a new crew chief, new teammates and a new hunger to drive his racecar better and faster than the 42 others who will join him on Daytona’s vast 2.5-mile oval.
Stewart has already proven himself, as his 48 career, point-paying Sprint Cup wins attest. And he’s proven himself at Daytona in particular, where Stewart is second on the track’s all-time win list with 19 overall victories – rivaling only the late Dale Earnhardt, who has 34 total victories at Daytona and is part of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2010.
But missing from Stewart’s win totals is a Daytona 500 victory. It’s a trophy Stewart covets, and one he’s come agonizingly close to attaining.
Now, after overcoming the agony of a broken leg, Stewart is hungry to return to his rightful place in a racecar. It’s appropriate that Stewart’s return comes on NASCAR’s biggest stage, where to the victor go the spoils, and one’s hunger can be satisfied by the sweet taste of victory.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What, if any, anxiety do you have about finally getting back in a racecar?
“I wouldn’t say I have anxiety, rather, I’m just impatient to get back in the car. A lot of other athletes, when they come off an injury, their sports are still going on and their season is still rolling. I’ve had to sit through the end of last season and the whole offseason, so I feel like I could get in a car right now and go race. So, there’s isn’t any anxiety as far as what’s going to happen, it’s more about being anxious to get started and get going again. I think that probably will override any pain that may exist once we get back in our Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet.”
Is there anything you’ve learned during physical therapy that gives you an idea as to what to expect from the leg once you’re in race conditions?
“Honestly, I don’t know and we won’t know until we’re in the car. I’ve been driving a street car for five months and I can drive all day. It’s not a drama, but it’s different than being in a racecar and having to hold the throttle wide open for 50 seconds a lap for 200 laps. We just aren’t going to know 100 percent until we get in the car. Everything that we’ve done in therapy, however, we’ve done to try to simulate race conditions. We’ve built contraptions to work on throttle position and work on the endurance that goes along with racing. Our fabricators were busy building racecars, but I also had them working on what I call a ‘government project’ – building some stuff to help me get ready. I feel like we’ve done everything we can to address every scenario that could possibly happen while we’re down there, and I feel like we’re as prepared as we can be.”
What sort of “government project” was your team working on for you?
“I actually had our shop build a deal with a seat, a steering wheel and a steering column, with pedals in it for us to use in therapy. The deal has pressurized shocks to give feedback in the pedal. We do a lot of stuff in therapy that is weight training where you’re picking up weight and putting down weight. Other than that, there really isn’t anything we do in therapy where you just sit and hold a pedal down for 20 minutes. We don’t have the time at therapy to do that so we had them build something that simulates the conditions of being in the car and having to maintain the pressure of having your foot on the throttle. We put a lot of thought into what we could do to make it better, make it more real so as to cover every angle that we could so we’re as prepared as possible for the start of the season.”
What kind of limitations do you anticipate once you’re back behind the wheel?
“I really don’t think there will be any at all. Our therapy has gone great. We’re over the hard part, which doesn’t mean we’re not still working because we are, but the major hurdles we had to overcome are gone. For a while now, I’ve been in a routine of strength building and getting the muscle back to where it needs to be. The injury is healing up really well, the bones are healing as quickly as they can, and everything is in good shape to be in a racecar. Fortunately, we’re not in a situation where I’ve got to do 100-yard sprints. If we had to do that we’d be in a lot different situation. I’ll still have to deal with G-forces, vibrations and all of the things that a racecar driver navigates. We obviously won’t know exactly how the leg will respond and the amount of pain there may be until I’m in the car for the practice session before the Sprint Unlimited. Those are variables we still don’t know yet, but the stuff that we’re doing in therapy – it’s very encouraging. We’ve made really big steps and I don’t think it’s going to be anything that’s going to bother us in the car in all reality.”
You haven’t been on the track yet, but you’ve at least sat in a seat to get the cars ready for the season. How was that experience?
“I got in there and it instantly felt like an old pair of shoes. We did the seat fit and then we had the finished product in so we could make sure that everything was right. It brought back a lot of memories of the excitement I felt the first time that I got in a Sprint Cup car. I hadn’t sat in a car since August, so it was just exciting to be able to climb down in the car. It’s a challenge getting in and out – not as smooth as it used to be – but once you get down in there, like I said, there is a comfort in it because it’s a molded seat. You don’t ever get a street car that’s molded to fit your shape, so there’s just that level of comfort in the car. I was in the seat and the crew guys started telling me that I needed to get out because they needed to get work done – that’s a pretty good indication of how happy I was to be sitting in a car again.”
What are your thoughts on your chances in the Sprint Unlimited, the non-points race Feb. 15?
“I think they’re good. It’s a fun race anyway, and to get the fans involved and make them more a part of the actual format and everything, I like it. It’s going to be pretty cool to see what they come up with. Daytona is one of those tracks where you can be at the front one minute and in the back the next, so I don’t think it’s going to change the outcome. But I think Sprint has provided a great asset by having the fans involved and letting them actually be a part of the event more than just watching as spectators. They’re now essentially a race director and getting to decide the format, and I think that’s kind of cool.”
When you’re in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the racecar?
“It depends on the circumstances. You can’t see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a real big tow or you hit a pocket where it seems they’re getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? It’s trial and error, but at the same time, it’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, the car’s torn up for the race. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”
As a driver, how much input do you have in making the car go fast at Daytona?
“The race situation is a lot different from practice. You tend to have a much larger pack of cars and that makes a really big difference. But you’re still able to figure out what your car likes and dislikes in the draft during practice. It may not be exactly what you’ll experience in the race, but it’s the closest thing to it. Basically, it gives you an idea of what your car is capable of and where you need to be to make the moves you want.”
What would winning the Daytona 500 mean to you?
“You look at marquee events around the world, and not only NASCAR but in all of motorsports – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours At Daytona, the Indy 500, the Knoxville Nationals – and to be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports. To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a racecar driver.”
Where would winning the Daytona 500 rank for you?
“No. 1. I may never get a chance to run in those other marquee events, so that’s why it puts the Daytona 500 at the top, because it’s something that we actually have a shot at. But it is hard. It’s a hard race, and it’s not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don’t accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal.”
In 2008, you nearly won the Daytona 500. How close were you?
“I’ve run that race over in my mind a million times on what I thought I could’ve done differently. If it would’ve been the Daytona 498, I had it won. I was forced to make a decision of whether I was going to put my whole race in jeopardy to win it, or know that I was getting passed but I may have a shot to get it back in the end. I took the safer route, and I wish I would’ve thrown caution to the wind. I think I would’ve rather crashed out of it knowing that I did everything I could, but I wasn’t sure that if I made the move to block Ryan (Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner) to get in front of him – they were coming at such a high rate of speed I was probably going to crash half the field if I moved.”
If you had to do that race over again, would you make the other decision?
“Yes. That decision to play it safe has haunted me ever since. So, if that situation happens again, I may come back on a hook, but at least I can say I know I did everything I could do to give myself that shot.”
Why was a Daytona 500 win just not in the cards for you that day?
“Ahhh, you know, I was working really good with my (then) teammate Kyle Busch. It was just being at the right place at the right time and, you know, Ryan (Newman) and Kurt Busch had just got hooked up and were making a huge, huge run, and that’s what it took to get by us. That was the only way they were going to get by us, was to get locked together, and they did a really good job at it.”
Stewart-Haas Racing looks a lot different than it did five years ago. What has it been like to watch the team go from a two-car to a three-car and now, a four-car team?
“It’s been a big undertaking. Our organization has gone two consecutive years where we’ve had to add to the existing program with a new team – one year ago with the addition of Danica (Patrick) and this year with Kurt (Busch). Luckily, we’re at the stage where NASCAR says we can’t do any more teams. I’ll be happy to go into next winter knowing we’re not going to be adding any more teams, as I’m sure the whole organization is, but we’re still excited. I think we’re probably the most pumped up as we’ve ever been. We’ve got a lot of great things to come this year, and I really feel like this is an organization that people have to watch out for.”
How do you see this year unfolding with the additions of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch to the SHR roster of drivers?
“The biggest thing with this group is that we all understand each other. Kurt, Kevin and I – all three of us have had our less-than-stellar moments, but the good thing is because of that we all understand each other and what it was that put us in those situations. Danica had to go through the same thing during her time in IndyCar and she deals with a lot of pressure here. All four of us understand the challenges we face and, because of that, there is almost a peace of mind in knowing that if we’re in a tough situation, we have teammates we can talk to. So far the dialogue between all four of us has been unreal. The good thing is that we each have positive parts of our personalities that helps us feed off of each other and push each other, and that makes us a strong combination.”
How do you feel about the new format for determining the championship?
“It’s putting pressure on the teams and the drivers but, at the same time, it’s really exciting. When you take a step back and look at it, you just can’t count anybody out and you have no idea what will happen on any given weekend. Every event in the Chase just means that much more now. Not that it wasn’t before, but you won’t be able to go to the season finale at Homestead and just coast. This brings another level of excitement. It’s pretty cool that NASCAR is as forward thinking as they are. In basketball the court is the same size and the rims are the same height. In football the fields are still 100 yards long and a touchdown is still six points. Our sport changes, and the rules have evolved with the technology.”