KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Historically, Tony Stewart has been so good at the relatively niche art of road racing that he might as well add a few umlauts to his name, at least for this weekend as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series invades the 11-turn, 2.45-mile road course that is Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
For years, road racing was considered a European hallmark, where Formula One reigns supreme and oval racetracks are vastly outnumbered by the twists and turns of the continent’s seemingly endless supply of road courses. Drivers with such names as Lewis, Jenson, Nigel, Mika, Sebastian, Kimi and Fernando are most often thought of as the premiere road-course talent.
But here in the good, ol’ U.S. of A, it’s a guy named Tony that leads the pack at the tracks with both left and right turns, as Stewart’s five Sprint Cup wins at The Glen attest.
The driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing comes from working-class roots in Columbus, Indiana, yet he possesses otherworldly driving skills that would put such Formula One champions as Mika Häkkinen (1998-1999) and Kimi Räikkönen (2007) to the test if they dared cross the Atlantic to compete at The Glen as their Formula One predecessors did from 1961 through 1980.
Since 1999 when Stewart began racing “tin-tops” at Watkins Glen as a Sprint Cup rookie, he has collected the most wins of any driver in Sprint Cup. His first win came in 2002 with subsequent trips to victory lane in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009.
In his 14 career Sprint Cup starts at The Glen, Stewart has only four finishes worse than seventh – 26th in 2001, 11th in 2003, 27th in 2011 and 19th in 2012. He has an average start of 6.3 and an average finish of 7.9.
Bolstering Stewart’s legend at The Glen is his success at the Sprint Cup Series’ other road-course venue in Sonoma, California. There, Stewart has two wins, three second-place finishes, five top-fives and nine top-10s in his 17 career Sprint Cup starts, giving him an average finish of 12.4.
Tally it all up and Stewart has seven road-course wins and only seven finishes lower than 15th. His average road-course finish is 10.4, which is due in large part to having recorded only one DNF (Did Not Finish) in his 31 career road-course races and earning a lap completion rate of 99.3 percent.
Amplifying Stewart’s traditional statistics is NASCAR’s loop data, which provides analysis of a driver’s performance profile in the last 10 races at Watkins Glen. Stewart ranks first or second in numerous loop data categories. He has the best overall driver rating (120.4), the best average running position (5.661), the best average speed early in a run (120.908 mph), the best average speed late in a run (120.640 mph), the most fastest laps run (106), is the fastest on restarts (116.694 mph) and has the fastest green-flag speed (120.785 mph). Stewart has the second-most laps led (145 laps or 20 percent) and the second-most laps spent in the top-15 (678 laps or 93.6 percent).
Currently, Stewart is 25th in the championship point standings. Watkins Glen presents an excellent opportunity for Stewart to win during this five-race stretch to qualify for the 16-driver field that makes up the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. While the point gap between Stewart and the 16th spot in points is large (136 points), a single win would allow Stewart to leapfrog his point deficit and place him into the Chase. It would put an interesting twist on Stewart’s season thus far, but that would be appropriate if it came at the twisting confines of Watkins Glen.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Does the success you’ve had at Watkins Glen give you added confidence, perhaps more so than at other tracks?
“It’s a race that we always look forward to. We’ve had a lot of success there and it’s just fun. It’s like taking Sonoma and just multiplying the speed times three. It’s just a lot faster track. It still has the same elevation changes, but you’re just running a lot quicker. Both Sonoma and Watkins Glen are two places on the schedule that we really enjoy coming to. And when you’ve won five races, it gives you that confidence that you know how to win, and know what you have to do to get to victory lane. I know what feel I need when we get here. It’s just a matter of going out and practicing and putting yourself in that position.”
What’s made you so successful on road courses and Watkins Glen in particular?
“We seem to have taken to the road racing side of it fairly well and we 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 when we get there we look forward to being there. There are some drivers that don’t look forward to the road-course races, and with us, we actually look forward to it. We like the change in pace and doing 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 like it when it gets hot and slick there. It kind of plays into our hands. This is the part of the year when the temperatures are at their highest, and we tend to pick up. I think we can handle the slicker conditions sometimes a little better than some of the guys around us. A lot of guys panic because they know it’s going to get slick. I get excited when I know it’s going to get slick.”
You’ve won seven road course races altogether – two at Sonoma and five at The Glen. Does success at one venue transfer to the other?
“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.”
You’ve enjoyed a lot of success at The Glen. What parts of the racetrack provide the best opportunities to pass?
“Anywhere you can take it. I mean, it’s literally just wherever there’s an opening. The end of the frontstretch and the end of the backstretch, where there are long breaking zones, those are good places.”
What’s the most treacherous part of Watkins Glen?
“The Bus Stop is probably the hardest because it involves such quick movements – both right and left, and then left and back right. If you get out of shape because something happens, or if you go too deep in the corner, or you wheel hop, or if you mess the entry up, it just throws the timing of all the rest of the quick corners there in that short section off. You can really mess yourself up if you miss the corners there.”
Because road course racing is such a different discipline, how do you approach it?
“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 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.”