KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Oct. 28, 2015) – When Tony Stewart arrived on the NASCAR scene, he was already an established champion with various open-wheel titles to his credit, including the 1997 IndyCar Series championship. So it surprised no one when he qualified on the outside pole for his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut – the 1999 Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
What he did just seven races later, however, raised more than a few eyebrows and played an important role in Stewart proving himself among the stock-car set. This weekend, Stewart returns to the scene of what turned out to be just the first of many show-stopping moments that have punctuated his 17-year Sprint Cup career.
The Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway marks Stewart’s 33rd start at the .526-mile oval. Driving the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), he looks to add to an impressive Martinsville record that features three wins, three poles, 10 top-fives, 16 top-10 finishes and 1,234 laps led.
It’s a substantial resume, begat by a rather significant debut.
Stewart was making just his eighth career Sprint Cup start when he arrived at Martinsville in the spring of 1999. The Indiana native had already impressed during his first seven starts that season, leading two different races for a total of 58 laps and scoring a pair of sixth-place finishes at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. On April 16 he upped the ante by scoring the top starting spot at Martinsville for his first career pole. While the 20th-place finish he walked away with was not the goal, a statement had been made.
Proving he was no flash in the pan when it came to negotiating the bump-and-run tactics that play out at Martinsville, Stewart returned to the southern Virginia track less than two years later for an encore performance of the pole-winning effort from his rookie season, earning the top starting spot for the track’s fall race in 2000. This time however, he backed it up by leading 179 laps and racing to the win. It was just the eighth victory of his young Sprint Cup career and the fifth of six victories he went on to score during his sophomore season.
While much has changed since Stewart’s early years competing in NASCAR’s top series, one thing has not – Martinsville’s designation as a racer’s track. It’s one of those rare venues on the NASCAR schedule where it’s less about aerodynamics and more about a driver’s ability to manipulate the tight, flat corners of the paperclip-shaped track. Stewart, having long ago made a name himself as a stock car racing ace, goes into the upcoming race weekend looking to tap into the experience that made him a 48-time Sprint Cup race winner.
Only four races remain for Stewart to call it a wrap on what is slated to be the penultimate season of his illustrious career – one destined for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, thanks in no small part to his exploits at Martinsville.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
When you first came to Martinsville as a 27-year-old rookie back in 1999, what did you think of the track?
“I looked at it and thought, ‘I can’t believe they race stock cars here.’ It’s what I was used to from a Sprint Car and Midget standpoint. I had seen it on TV, but the first time you’re here, you think, ‘This is really small,’ and you realize how close quarters it really is. Back then, the noses on the cars were slanted and the rear bumpers were really high, and if you touched somebody you turned them around easily. Now, our bumpers match up better. You don’t wreck somebody right off the bat. But if you hit them enough, you will.”
Martinsville is a very unique track. What’s it like to race there?
“Even on the bad days, it can be fun. And when you have a good day, it’s great. The grandfather clock you get for winning is one of the cooler trophies in our sport. Normally, 20-year-old kids don’t get too excited about grandfather clocks, but you realize it’s more than that at Martinsville. There’s a lot of pride and lot of history with this sport at Martinsville.
“One thing about Martinsville is there is no lack of excitement. I don’t care how flawlessly your day goes, you’re going to bump into somebody at some point, even on a perfect day. You put 43 cars on this half-mile track and it’s always going to be exciting. You will never have a race there where you don’t have some sort of drama during the day. I think every driver will say they will have some drama at some point. When you have 43 drivers with 43 dramatic moments, that’s a lot of action going on.”
Martinsville is a throwback venue. How do you see its place in the sport?
“I don’t care how old it gets or how far down the road it gets, it’s not going to be a track that I ever see leaving the schedule. It’s got too much history, too much personality, and that’s what you see a lack of in some of these 2-mile and 1.5-mile tracks. At those places, you’re going to get strung out. You’re going to get away from people. But the fans really like to see us on top of each other. That’s what ensures the longevity of Martinsville – the action they’re going to see.”
Do you have a particular Martinsville memory that stands out?
“For a long time, we’d run really well there and hadn’t won a race, and then even after we’d won our first race, it took a long time to win our second. It’s a place where we’ve really run well at a lot. A lot of the races that were some of the most fun were races we didn’t win, but we ran in the top-five and had pretty good battles during the day. It’s a place where if you have a good driving racecar, it’s a blast to run, but if it’s off, it’s a long, long day. You don’t think a half-mile track is physically demanding, but if your car’s not driving well, you’re pretty tired at the end of the day.”