KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Nov. 11, 2015) – “For Love Of The Game” is a novel turned motion picture that was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Shaara and actually published posthumously in 1991 after the writer’s son discovered the manuscript. The fictional tale tells the story of baseball great Billy Chapel, who’s nearing the end of his career and is in the midst of pitching a perfect game while contemplating a career-ending decision after learning of his impending trade to a different team.
Having already decided that the 2016 season will be his last as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, Tony Stewart is in no such quandary. For more than 35 years, it’s the love of his game that has fueled Stewart. And one of the venues at which that affection has been most palpable is Phoenix International Raceway, site of Sunday’s Race for Heroes 500k.
In his signature No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), Stewart is set to make his 27th career Sprint Cup start at Phoenix, a track where the driver and owner has been racing for more than 20 years.
Phoenix has often served as a bright spot for Stewart, who made his first start at the “Jewel in the Desert” in the 1993 edition of the famed Copper World Classic. A mere 21 years old at the time, Stewart was competing in the season-opening USAC Silver Crown race, an event for which he qualified second to former IndyCar veteran Davey Hamilton. After leading 31 of the 50 laps, Stewart eventually finished second to Mike Bliss, who later went on to win the 2003 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship.
Six years later, Stewart returned to Phoenix yet again with rookie status but, this time, in the elite Sprint Cup Series. While the rookie label was applicable to Stewart in NASCAR’s premiere division, it was anything but when it pertained to Stewart’s history at Phoenix. Prior to 1999, Stewart had raced USAC Midget and Silver Crown cars, Supermodifieds and Indy cars on the relatively flat, mile oval carved into the hillside of the Estrella Mountains.
Stewart knew every inch of the track and, after starting 11th in the 43-car field, he took the lead for the first time on lap 87. He would go on to lead three times for a race-high 154 laps en route to the win, his second of three Sprint Cup victories that rookie season.
In the 16 years since winning in his first Sprint Cup start at Phoenix, Stewart has put together a record that, in addition to the win, includes eight top-five finishes, 12 top-10s, 555 laps led and an average finish of 13.5. And he’s done it all while being the model of consistency, completing all but 44 of an available 8,193 laps for a completion rate of 99.5 percent.
Now, as he stares down the twilight of his Hall of Fame-destined career, Stewart is focused on one thing – going out on top. In the penultimate race of the 2015 season, Stewart wants to rise like a Phoenix at Phoenix International Raceway.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How long have you been racing at Phoenix?
“I started racing there in ’93 when I ran a USAC Silver Crown car. And since then, I’ve run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Super Modifieds, Xfinity Series cars and, of course, Sprint Cup. So, I’ve logged a bunch of laps there. To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it’s the place where my career came full circle.”
What did the Copper World Classic mean to you when you were growing up?
“It was everything. Take what it’s like for us in the Sprint Cup Series to get ready for the Daytona 500 – that’s what it was like to come out to Phoenix for the Copper World Classic. As soon as the season was over, everybody got ready and started getting cars built for the Copper Classic. You literally built cars that were basically one-off cars, so to speak, just to run the Copper Classic. You put extra time, extra detail in them. It was the big one, for sure.”
What is your greatest story about racing at Phoenix?
“It’s hard because there are so many great moments. The first time I drove a Supermodified there, I think we were running 22-second or 23-second laps around there. One year, Ryan (Newman) and I had a great race where I was having motor trouble all day. I couldn’t seem to get the car off the corner. It stumbled a lot but, halfway down the straightway, it would come to life and I could use the draft following Ryan to get caught up. He ended up having an issue with two laps to go and we won the race. I remember another time in one of the early Silver Crown races I ran at Phoenix where I think we ran fifth to Jac Haudenschild. Jac was sideways all the way down through the dogleg on the backstretch. I would pass Jac through the corners and then, down the straightway, here he would come with smoke coming off the right rear (tire). I thought, ‘Man, this guy’s tire is never going to make it.’ He made it to the end and he finished either third and I ran fourth, or he was fourth and I was fifth. That was one of coolest moments for me.”
Did you take an immediate liking to Phoenix in 1993 when you ran there in USAC?
“When we ran the USAC cars out there, it was pretty cool because I had never gone that fast before. It’s just one of those tracks where, to run a Midget and a Silver Crown car there, it definitely got your attention. It was pretty fast.”
How did you transition from one type of racing to another?
“It’s more fear than anything that I was going to have to get a real job if I wasn’t successful. That’s the great thing about running USAC and being in Indiana, where not only did we have winged Sprint cars and non-winged Sprint cars, Midgets and Silver Crown cars, we ran on dirt tracks one night and pavement the next. We ran Modifieds and Late Models. There were just so many things to drive around there that you learned how to adapt, and you learned how not to have a preconceived notion about how a racecar is supposed to feel and drive. You learned to read what the car was telling you as far as what it liked and disliked, and learned how to change your driving style accordingly. Especially at Phoenix, every car we’ve driven there, even though the track’s the same, they all drove differently. You just had to adapt to it and learn to read the racecar instead of thinking this is what the car I ran last night felt like and it’s supposed to feel like this today. It doesn’t work that way.”
How did you get so much experience at Phoenix before you raced there as a Sprint Cup rookie in 1999?
“Me and Arie Luyendyk were the two lead test drivers for Firestone when we were in the IndyCar Series. We spent a lot of time in Phoenix because the weather is so good out there all year long. We would spend three days out there tire testing and we had two or three of those sessions through the winter. I got to spend a lot of time running around Phoenix. I got to know every line around the track that’s ever been run and why it’s been run.”