KANNAPOLIS, N.C.– For the next three weeks the West Coast will serve as the pseudo headquarters for all things NASCAR. The “West Coast Swing” kicks off with this weekend’s Kobalt 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), is the 2012 winner.
While adding another trophy to his vast collection is top-of-mind for Stewart, so too is the big picture the West Coast Swing represents with back-to-back-to-back races at Las Vegas, Phoenix International Raceway and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Beyond the logistical challenge of racing west of the Mississippi River for the better part of a month, these three tracks serve as a composite for the majority of tracks the Sprint Cup Series visits.
Las Vegas is a 1.5-mile intermediate oval, Phoenix is a flat and fast 1-mile oval, and Fontana is a sweeping, 2-mile oval. Run well at these tracks and chances are you’ll run well at many of the other tracks dotting the marathon-like Sprint Cup schedule that takes drivers deep into November with the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
With the Sprint Cup Series enjoying a strong balance of competition where nearly 30 driver/team combinations are capable of winning, the likelihood of a different winner for each of the three West Coast races is high. And while scoring the big trophy at the end of the race is always the goal, the intangible takeaway once the West Coast Swing is complete is where one stacks up against the competition. The real winners of the West will be able tote home more than just hardware. They’ll have confidence and knowledge that will carry them through spring and into summer and, ideally, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Stewart knows this well. The three-time Sprint Cup champion owns 48 career victories in NASCAR’s premiere series. Four of those wins have come at the tracks featured in the West Coast Swing: Las Vegas (2012), Phoenix (1999) and Fontana (October 2010 and March 2012). In 64 Sprint Cup starts across these three tracks, Stewart has amassed 21 top-five and 34 top-10 finishes while leading 1,369 laps.
Stewart will dig into that well of experience when Sprint Cup practice begins Friday morning at Las Vegas – a track that had thwarted the veteran racer for 13 years prior to him getting that long-sought victory in 2012.
Before that win, Las Vegas had been one of the most vexing tracks for Stewart. In those 13 starts before finally hoisting a trophy, Stewart earned five top-five and eight top-10 finishes. He had led laps, sat behind the wheel of dominant cars and been close enough to victory that he could almost taste the celebratory champagne – the most blatant example being the track’s 2011 Sprint Cup race.
Stewart dominated the 2011 edition of the Kobalt 400 where a win seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Stewart led four times for a race-high 163 laps and at one point opened up a four-second lead over his nearest pursuer. Foiling the effort, however, was a pit road penalty that sent him to the rear of the field late in the race. And while Stewart was able to maneuver through the pack to get back to second place, the penalty ultimately cost him what was a seemingly surefire victory.
Redemption was found one year later when Stewart started seventh at Las Vegas and led a race-high 127 laps en route to the win. While on paper he owned the prevailing performance, Stewart would later explain that he did not feel like he had the dominant car. The race would go on to be slowed by three different caution periods during the final 25 laps, placing Stewart in the unenviable position of having to hold off five-time Sprint Cup champion and four-time Las Vegas winner Jimmie Johnson throughout three late-race restarts. While some drivers may have buckled under the pressure of maintaining the race lead, Stewart thrived in the moment. He was simply not going to be denied. Stewart scored the win by pulling away to almost a half-second lead during the final four circuits around the 1.5-mile track.
Fast forward to 2015 where Stewart enters the Kobalt 400 with win a win, six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 16 starts at Las Vegas. He’s led laps in eight of those 16 starts for a total of 482 laps led and has failed to finish a race at Las Vegas only once – 2008 when an early-race accident eliminated him from contention.
Typically, anything less than a win is unfulfilling. But on the West Coast Swing, front-running consistency validates the countless hours spent in the offseason. It could, in fact, be more valuable than a win. That is how the West will be won.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is your outlook for this weekend’s race at Las Vegas?
“It’s no different at Las Vegas than anywhere else. We have to get our Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevy to rotate through the corner, but still stay tight enough on entry and exit. There’s no unique challenges there. The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of our car, and that’s a luxury we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps. Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
What are your thoughts on the start of the schedule with spending three weeks on the West Coast?
“I actually like being out on the West Coast for three weeks. I think it will be fun. We’re getting pretty busy in the schedule at this point, but my plans are actually to stay out there. It gives us an opportunity to stay out there a little longer than what we normally have rather than going back and forth. So I’m going to enjoy my time out there.”
What is the key to being successful at Las Vegas?
“You know, there’s really no key to it. It’s just like anywhere else you go. You just have to have a well-balanced car. It seems like track position is really, really key there, but as long as you can get your car driving well and stay ahead of it, it seems like as the day changes, or the longer the day goes, the more the track changes and the more you have to stay up with it. You just can’t have any mistakes there because you cannot afford to lose track position, and you have to be able to stay up with the changing track conditions as the day goes on.”
What did it mean to finally get that win at Las Vegas, particularly after coming so close on several occasions?
“I was so glad to finally win one at Las Vegas. We were so close in 2011 and had a dominant car. That’s a race we should’ve won. Winning in this series is hard enough as it is, and when you have a race where you’re able to do pretty much anything you want but not close the deal, that’s hard. So to finally win absolutely felt great. I don’t think we necessarily had the dominant car, but we had the car that took off the best on the restarts, and we had quite a few there at the end. I think we were hands down the strongest car on restarts of getting to turn one from the restart point, and all the technology Mobil 1 brings to the table certainly helped us with that.”
How tough was it to hold off everyone during all of those restarts at the end of the race?
“It was nerve wracking at the end, for sure. Every time the caution came out, you cringed knowing you were giving them another opportunity to take a shot. You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ The other thing is that every time the caution came out, you knew there was another heat cycle on the tires. But our car was so strong on restarts, we could get to the start/finish line and get to turn one so good – that was a big key in being able to stay out front. We may have been a little bit weaker than everyone behind us during those first three laps after a restart, but we’d break even during the next three laps. And after six or seven laps, we were able to pull away. It was just a great win for us.”
Is being out front still the place to be at Las Vegas because you’re in clean air?
“As time goes on, the sport evolves, technology gets closer and closer, the rules get closer and closer, but the one variable that stays the same is air. If you can get out front and get in clean air, it’s always going to be an advantage. It’s been that way in Formula One, IndyCar, sports car racing. It’s even big in the World of Outlaws. It’s not just in the Sprint Cup Series. It’s everywhere you find that because the technology has gotten so close, the cars have gotten so close, that it’s little differences that make a huge difference on the racetrack. Do I think it’s going to be that way everywhere? Absolutely not. The tracks where the tires fall off more, it’s not as critical because it seems like you move around more. The wider the track gets because of tire wear and the guys can offset themselves, the less the air becomes a factor.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine