KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 1, 2015) – Tony Stewart is no stranger to championship battles. In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series alone, Stewart has won three driving titles – first in 2002 and then again in 2005 and 2011. And even though he’s out of the running to add a fourth Sprint Cup championship to his resume this season, the opportunity to add a third car owner championship is alive and well.
This weekend in the AAA 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Stewart the driver will pilot his No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). Meanwhile, Stewart the car owner will keep a close eye on the two SHR drivers heavily engaged in this year’s title fight.
The first elimination race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is Dover. The 16-driver Chase field will be whittled to 12 when the checkered flag drops on Sunday’s 400-lap race around the 1-mile, concrete oval. Advancing from the Challenger Round to the Contender Round of the Chase will prove to be a nail-biter for SHR, as its drivers – Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick – currently sit seventh and 15th in points. If either driver wins at Dover, they’ll advance. If a win isn’t in the cards, they need a strong finish to earn a position among the top-12 in points or else their title run is over. While each driver faces different scenarios to advance, the pressure is the same for both.
Competing under intense pressure is something in which the venerable Stewart is well-versed. Blood, sweat and tears are intrinsic with any championship, but none of Stewart’s three Sprint Cup titles was probably more hard-fought than 2011.
After going winless through the first 26 races of the season, Stewart kicked off that year’s title bid by winning back-to-back races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Prior to the final race of the 2011 Chase, Stewart had added two more wins– again back-to-back efforts at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Despite all of that winning, Stewart went into the season finale three points behind Chase leader Carl Edwards.
The best way to guarantee the championship was to win, and Stewart did just that. He ultimately captured the 2011 crown in a tiebreaker over Edwards, as his five wins trumped Edwards’ lone victory.
If that kind of experience isn’t enough for SHR’s championship contenders to leverage, they also can draw from Stewart’s experience at Dover, one of the toughest tracks on the circuit that is aptly nicknamed the “Monster Mile”.
Slaying the high-banked oval is something that has been second nature to Stewart since arriving on the Sprint Cup scene as a rookie in 1999. During his first six seasons competing at Dover, Stewart finished outside the top-10 only once – an 11th-place effort in June 2002. During that 12-race span, Stewart scored two wins, nine top-fives and 11 top-10s.
In total, Stewart owns three wins at Dover – he swept the track’s slate of Sprint Cup races in 2000 and earned his most recent victory in June 2013 – and has totaled 11 top-fives and 17 top-10s while leading a total of 1,075 laps. He has failed to finish a race on only three occasions and has completed all but 463 of the laps run in his 32 career starts, allowing for a lap completion rate of 96.4 percent.
Stewart will again navigate Dover while Busch and Harvick navigate the track and their championship aspirations. Each has been there, done that and got the trophy, for in addition to Stewart’s three Sprint Cup titles, Busch won the championship in 2004 and Harvick won the title in 2014. Although previous experience does not guarantee a championship, it remains an advantage on the drive to advancement.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Dover is a pretty unique track being that it’s a high-banked, concrete, 1-mile oval. How do you approach it?
“Dover is a track that is kind of a two-phase deal. It’s easy to get your car too tight in the center (of the corner) trying to get it to drive up off the corner nice, and it seems like if you get it to rotate through the corner, then it’s way loose off. Those are the two things you really battle there. It’s the sacrifice of where do you want to be a little bit off to accomplish having a balanced car.”
Is Dover the type of racetrack where a driver can make up for a racecar that isn’t handling well?
“To a certain extent, yes. With the way the cars slide around on the racetrack late in the day, there are times when a driver can make up for what the car won’t do. They can move around on the racetrack and help themselves out by finding a faster groove.”
After early success at Dover, it’s been a track that in recent years proved troublesome, at least prior to your 2013 win. What is your mindset going into Dover?
“Dover is probably the track where we have struggled the most, which certainly made the 2013 win that much sweeter. It was the one track that we always had to look at and say, ‘This is one that we have to figure out and do better if we’re going to have a shot at this.’ We have to survive there. What we did there that year helped us out for our next two races at Dover but, even with the win, we have some work to do.”
What do you remember about your last win at Dover in 2013?
“I remember thinking that if someone had told me we were going to win, I would’ve told them they were crazy. We just didn’t have the car to win the race, but we had great pit strategy at the end. Our car was solid, but we just never could get the track position to get in clean air. We changed only two tires on that last stop to get up front. The car felt a lot better up there and it didn’t seem like the guys who took four tires had a huge advantage taking off. When we noticed we were catching the leaders, we kind of got going on the bottom and made up even more time. It was just a big win for us and really gave us some momentum for the next few races.”
Dover’s surface is concrete. Do you have to alter your driving style when you race on concrete?
“I don’t think you drive it any differently. But because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would. There are seams in Dover’s surface and places where they’ve cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change and, every year when you go there, the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that’s constantly changing. But it’s one of those places where you really can’t change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It’s just a matter of finding the package that’s right for that racetrack. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track – either the car is going to be tight or it’s going to be loose.”