KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Nov. 18, 2015) – Winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is no small feat, let alone three. Being a three-time champion is an accomplishment only a handful of drivers have experienced, and Tony Stewart became the most recent Sprint Cup driver to have won three or more series titles when he hoisted the championship trophy in 2011, a triumph preceded by his first series championship in 2002 and then his second three years later in 2005.
Stewart is four years removed from his last driving championship, but he’s only one year removed from being crowned a two-time championship-winning car owner, a title he earned courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver Kevin Harvick winning the 2014 Sprint Cup championship. Having survived the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Harvick goes into this weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway looking to do it all again. It’s an opportunity for Stewart and Harvick to win back-to-back series titles, something that hasn’t been done since car owner Rick Hendrick won consecutive championships with driver Jimmie Johnson from 2006 to 2010.
While Stewart the car owner will be keeping a close eye on his organization’s opportunity to repeat as champions, Stewart the driver will be looking to finish the 2015 season on a strong note behind the wheel of his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS. And Stewart will be doing it at a track where the path to victory lane is familiar.
Like Stewart, Homestead has been a staple on the Sprint Cup circuit since 1999, and the cagey veteran is one of only two active drivers – Jeff Gordon being the other – who participated in the track’s inaugural event, a race for which Stewart arrived fresh off just his second career series victory the week prior at Phoenix International Raceway. As it would turn out, Stewart’s performance in South Florida that November weekend 16 years ago was anything but novice.
After qualifying seventh, Stewart went on to lead the race four times for 46 laps, including the final 11 circuits around the 1.5-mile oval, cruising to victory by a margin of more than five seconds.
That win in 1999 was the first of three Stewart has won at Homestead, including the season finale in 2011 – a victory that catapulted him to the season championship. Complementing the three wins are four top-five finishes, seven top-10s and 450 laps led in 15 starts.
When the checkered flag waves on Sunday, Stewart will have completed the penultimate season of his 17-year Sprint Cup career. But before he embarks on a season-long celebration of his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career in 2016, Stewart would like nothing more than to celebrate another car owner championship at Homestead.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How was it different winning the championship as an owner than as a driver?
“It’s different because it’s one of your best friends you see winning the championship and accomplishing that goal. So you get to celebrate with him and celebrate with the organization instead of just having that feeling of winning a championship as a driver. So it was considerably different.”
Explain a lap around Homestead.
“You go off into turn one and, when you get into the banking, you lift. If your car is good, you can go and not use any brake, or very, very little brake. You stay one lane off the bottom, past the transition – it’s a little less banking on the lower level toward the apron – so you stay one level above that. As soon as your car settles in, you can really just mash right back in the gas and just ride that second level around down onto the backstretch. And then you do exactly the same thing going into turn three. A lot of times in turn three, because of the wind direction there, you can actually go into the corner a lot harder and a lot further, actually turning into the corner before you get off the gas. And it’s the same thing once that car settles in – you get on the gas and ride it around to the frontstretch. It’s a pretty smooth racetrack.”
Homestead is an intermediate track, the kind that makes up the majority of the Sprint Cup schedule. Yet, it still seems unique. Why?
“The way you drive the racetrack is pretty unique. The corners are very symmetrical, but the way you drive it is a little bit different. It creates a lot of opportunities to pass, and it’s a track where you can run from the bottom to the top. It’s just a matter of where your car works the best. The way the momentum gets built and shifted there, it’s kind of unique from all the other tracks as far as how you can get through the center of the corner and be three car-lengths ahead of the guy, but a guy can really get a run off the corner and, the next thing you know, on the exit, you are back to being side-by-side. It’s a little bit different momentum-wise and how you pass there than some of the other tracks we go to.”
A lot was made about what kind of champion you would be when you won your first championship in 2002. You seemed to be more polarizing then, sometimes getting more boos than cheers at driver introductions. Over the years, it was about 50-50 boos to cheers and, now, it’s mostly cheers. Why do you think that’s the case?
“Because I’ve stayed true to who I am, and I’m honest and say what’s on my mind. I’ve never changed who I was and have never changed my views on things to be popular. I’ve just stayed the course and I think people respect that.”
Is it difficult when you’re not in a championship battle to keep your focus through the end of the season?
“Yeah, because all everybody wants to do is talk about the guys who are in it, and all we want to do is worry about the stuff that we’re doing that didn’t get us in it and trying to make our cars better. That is the stuff we’re trying to work on and to concentrate on our program and not worry about what everybody else is doing. And it’s hard. You want to be in the middle of it and you want to be one of those guys who are there but, at the same time, when it doesn’t work out, you have to sit there and try to figure out why you didn’t get yourself in that situation. They’re still trying to fight for this year but were already fighting for next year.”