KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – It was all there. The trademark mischievous grin. The perfectly timed wisecrack. The twinkle in the eye. It was vintage Tony Stewart, and it was on display a few weeks ago during the annual Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway Media Tour.
It’s Stewart’s state of being as the driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS begins his 17th year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, where his aim is a return to the championship form he displayed in 2011 when he scored his third Sprint Cup title.
Nonetheless, Stewart comes into 2015 fresh off a championship, albeit as a car owner. As the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, Stewart was able to hoist the championship-winning car owner trophy when his driver and teammate, Kevin Harvick, triumphed in the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
But there’s a reason Stewart is referred to as a driver-owner, for driving is his first priority. Since earning his most recent driving title in 2011 when he outdueled Carl Edwards in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart has won only four times in the three years since. For someone who is used to winning multiple times in a single season to earn a total of 48 career Sprint Cup victories – tied for 13th on the Sprint Cup Series’ all-time win list with NASCAR Hall of Famer Herb Thomas – Stewart is ready to go retro.
In a career that has seen three championships (2002, 2005 and 2011) and victories at all but two of the tracks the Sprint Cup Series visits, Stewart has a robust resume any racer would covet. But one trophy missing from his mantle is the Harley J. Earl, given to the winner of the season-opening Daytona 500.
The 57th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 22 will be Stewart’s 33rd career, point-paying Sprint Cup start at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. And while he has yet to score a Daytona 500 win, the “World Center of Racing” is a likely place for Stewart to return to his winning ways.
Among active drivers, Stewart is Daytona’s all-time race winner. Between point-paying Sprint Cup races, non-point races, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the former IROC series, Stewart has a total of 19 Daytona wins. The tally places Stewart second on the track’s all-time win list, 15 behind the late, great Dale Earnhardt, who has 34 total victories at Daytona and is part of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2010.
Stewart is a four-time Sprint Cup winner at Daytona, having scored victories in the annual Fourth of July weekend race in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2012, the most among active drivers. Augmenting those four wins are nine top-fives, 14 top-10s and 668 laps led in 32 career, point-paying Daytona starts.
In his most recent Sprint Cup win at Daytona – the 2012 Coke Zero 400 – Stewart exercised textbook patience, waiting to make his move for the win well past the race’s halfway mark. He took the lead on lap 131 and led 21 circuits before relinquishing the top spot to the duo of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle on lap 152. A massive crash set up a two-lap dash to the finish and Stewart regained the lead on the final lap with an impressive drive around Biffle and Kenseth off turn two and down the backstretch. When another multicar wreck brought out the caution, Stewart’s victory was sealed. It was his 47th career Sprint Cup win.
Stewart arrives for Budweiser Speedweeks at Daytona with a reinvigorated focus on the future that is buoyed by past success. It’s the perfect balance, and it’s vintage Smoke.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is your outlook as you prepare for the 2015 season?
“I can tell you that from a desire to still compete at a high level and win championships, it’s as high as it’s ever been. I’m not happy about the last two years of my life, by any means, but I’ve never questioned who I am or what I do. It’s probably made my desire stronger than ever. We’ve had two rough years back‑to‑back – something I would never wish on anybody – but deep down inside I know who I am as a person and I know who I am as a driver. It’s given me more drive and desire to get back to the old form that our fans and our sponsors like Bass Pro Shops and Mobil 1 and everybody is used to seeing us in. That’s what I want to get back to, and that’s what makes the start of 2015 so exciting for me. It’s flipping the page and getting ready to get focused again on what we love doing.”
How much does last year’s car-owner championship shape your outlook for this season?
“Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers and that No. 4 team winning the championship proves we have the right tools in place to have that kind of success. It’s a matter of just putting the pieces together. We know we have room for improvement as an organization and getting all of our cars performing at the same level. That’s what we’ve worked on in the offseason, to try to match what Kevin’s done.”
This is your second year with Chad Johnston as your crew chief. How much has the relationship with him grown since this time last year?
“I think from day one – when it comes to personality – we are a perfect fit for each other. When you hear people talk about driver and crew chief combinations, you hear them talk about it as a marriage, and you really have to be in sync with the person that is your crew chief. It’s just taken a while for me to get used to the path that he was going down with the engineering. As everything evolves each year, you have to keep changing as a driver to catch up to it. So I feel like getting that first year under our belt was important. I’ve seen a lot more confidence, especially at the end of last year. He made some key personnel changes in the offseason, and I think they’re changes he’s very, very comfortable and confident with. It’s just given us more time during the offseason to develop our relationship, but I see more confidence in him now than ever.”
What is the status of your leg since having that fourth surgery in December?
“I haven’t been in a car since Homestead, but everything else I’ve been doing with just everyday life shows that it’s been feeling much, much better. There is one more surgery scheduled at the end of next year – about the same time as this past year – and it’s just to take the titanium rod out. At that point I will have all of the hardware out of my leg. That should be the last surgery, and it will be a short recovery period.”
Restrictor-plate racing isn’t your favorite type of racing, but it is one at which you seem to excel, particularly at Daytona. What makes it frustrating?
“I wish I could explain it. I’m certainly not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks, especially Daytona. I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver. The great thing about restrictor-plate racing though is that 43 cars all have the same shot at winning the race, but again, that’s also part of what makes it frustrating, too. It’s just being at the right place at the right time.”
It seems that luck plays as much of a factor at Daytona as everything else. Why is that?
“Someone described racing on the superspeedways of being a combination of a science project and the luck of a casino, and it’s exactly that way. You do everything in your power to take care of the science or technology side. You do everything you can to build the fastest car. If you don’t have the luck to go with it – even if you don’t have any drama with getting the car touched, nothing happens to the car – if you’re just in the wrong spot at the wrong time, it can take you out of the opportunity to take the best racecar in the field and win.”
What would winning the Daytona 500 mean to you?
“You look at marquee events around the world, and not only in NASCAR but in all of motorsports – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours At Daytona, the Indy 500, the Knoxville Nationals – and to be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports. To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a racecar driver.”
Where would winning the Daytona 500 rank for you?
“No. 1. I may never get a chance to run in those other marquee events, so that’s why it puts the Daytona 500 at the top, because it’s something that we actually have a shot at. But it is hard. It’s a hard race, and it’s not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don’t accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal.”
In 2008, you nearly won the Daytona 500. How close were you?
“I’ve run that race over in my mind a million times on what I thought I could’ve done differently. If it would’ve been the Daytona 498, I had it won. I was forced to make a decision of whether I was going to put my whole race in jeopardy to win it, or know that I was getting passed but I may have a shot to get it back in the end. I took the safer route, and I wish I would’ve thrown caution to the wind. I think I would’ve rather crashed out of it knowing that I did everything I could, but I wasn’t sure that if I made the move to block Ryan (Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner) to get in front of him – they were coming at such a high rate of speed, I was probably going to crash half the field if I moved.”
If you had to do that race over again, would you make the other decision?
“Yes. That decision to play it safe has haunted me ever since. So, if that situation happens again, I may come back on a hook, but at least I can say I know I did everything I could do to give myself that shot.”
Why was a Daytona 500 win just not in the cards for you that day?
“Ahhh, you know, I was working really good with my (then) teammate Kyle Busch. It was just being at the right place at the right time and, you know, Ryan (Newman) and Kurt Busch had just got hooked up and were making a huge, huge run, and that’s what it took to get by us. That was the only way they were going to get by us, was to get locked together, and they did a really good job at it.”
When you’re in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the racecar?
“It depends on the circumstances. You can’t see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a real big tow or you hit a pocket where it seems they’re getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? It’s trial and error, but at the same time, it’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, your car’s torn up. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine