KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Nov. 4, 2015) – Tony Stewart turned in a workmanlike performance last Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, where he raced to a 10th-place finish after having to start at the rear of the 43-car field due to an accident in practice the day prior that sent him to his backup racecar. After the 500-lap race around the .526-mile oval, Stewart noted that he played a bigger role than just wheeling his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS around in circles en route to his 300th career top-10 finish in 587 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts.
“We did something in happy hour (final practice) with this second car that, to be honest, it was actually something I had a little input on,” said Stewart after the race. “I’m not very smart, and it wasn’t because of me, for sure, but it was Chad (Johnston, crew chief) and I and everybody working together and trying to find a solution that might fix our problem.”
It was an investment, and it’s one for which Stewart made significant gains that he hopes pays long-term dividends.
While the 10th-place result was Stewart’s 300th in Sprint Cup since joining the series in 1999, it was just his third top-10 of 2015. With only three races remaining this year, the work being put forth is all about building for 2016, which will be Stewart’s last as a Sprint Cup driver.
This weekend at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Stewart aims for continual gains of a capital nature in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500.
Stewart is a two-time Sprint Cup race winner at the 1.5-mile oval, having scored victories in November 2006 and November 2011, the latter of which led to his third Sprint Cup championship. Complementing his two wins are a pair of poles, six top-fives and 13 top-10s. Additionally, Stewart has completed all but 105 of the laps run in his 26 career starts at Texas for a lap-completion rate of 98.8. And he’s led a total of 801 laps, third-best among active Sprint Cup drivers.
Most recently, however, it’s what Stewart did during qualifying in the Lone Star State that made headlines. One year ago, Stewart drove his No. 14 Chevrolet to a record lap of 26.985 seconds at 200.111 mph. It was a lap that has gone down as the fastest ever recorded in a stock car at a 1.5-mile oval.
The same person who made that record-breaking lap a year ago returns to Texas intent on making the most of this weekend’s race. The AAA Texas 500 provides Stewart a new opportunity at a familiar venue, potentially allowing for a familiar run at the front of the field.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Texas is a track where you’ve been consistently good. What makes you so comfortable there?
“You have to be comfortable or you’re not going to go fast. The more comfortable I am, the faster we go. This track – the grooves have moved around, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve seen the track get wider and it’s made it to where you can move around on the racetrack and where you can run the top side or the bottom side. It’s nice from a driver’s perspective to be able to have that flexibility behind the steering wheel, knowing that if your car’s not driving exactly the way you want it to, you can move around the racetrack and find a spot the car likes better.”
You’ve logged a lot of laps at Texas. How has the track developed since those early years?
“Anytime you put more seasons on a racetrack, the better it gets because it seems like the pavement wears out on the bottom and it makes it to where you can run the top and be fast, and you can run the bottom and be fast. It makes the whole racetrack, speed-wise, about the same, versus when they pave a racetrack and the only groove is right on the bottom. The fastest way is the shortest way because it all has the same amount of grip, so the shorter distance is faster. Every year we come here, I think the racing just gets better and better, as far as being able to move around on the racetrack and guys not having to just follow each other and get stuck behind each other. You can actually pass. You can race. You can get away from guys if your car’s fast.”
How have you been able to adapt to Texas’ layout?
“I’ve found that you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy who misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn’t make a mistake and you’ve got a little better car than they do, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track’s a little wider, so you have more room to get a run on a guy. But, as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car’s handling will become more important. And, when a guy makes a mistake, you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up.”
A lot of drivers talk about turn two at Texas, where it feels like the banking falls out from underneath them. Can you describe that sensation?
“It does. The entry and exit of these corners, they’re very abrupt as far as the banking. When you turn in the corner, it’s very abrupt getting in and it falls off very quickly. The reason for that, when they built Texas Motor Speedway, they intended to have the Indy cars race on the apron. That’s why the apron is so wide at Texas. The Indy cars were not originally meant to run on the banking. That’s why the banking on the entry of the corner and exit falls off so fast, so the cars could come from the straightaway from the apron and back up with a smooth transition from the bottom. It makes it a different challenge than what we have at Charlotte or Atlanta because of that. It does make it a lot more challenging to get your car set up for it. You can’t relax on the entry and you can’t relax on the exit of the corner. A lot of times, it’s hard to get your car secure on the entry because you don’t have that banking to hold it. Once you get in the corner, it seems like it’s all right. Same thing happens on the exit. Turn two is the tighter of the two exits of the racetrack. You’re still trying to finish the corner there and you have to keep tugging on the steering wheel and, at the same time, make sure you don’t lose the back (of the car). It definitely falls out from under you. When it does, you have to make sure your car is tight enough to make it through that transition.”