KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – When Tony Stewart first turned a lap at Phoenix International Raceway back in 1993, it was love at first sight for the driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS.
The setting was the famed Copper World Classic where a 21-year-old Stewart was competing in the season-opening USAC Silver Crown race. Stewart qualified second to Davey Hamilton – a former IndyCar veteran – and led 31 of the 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss – the 2003 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. The $3,500 payday for his second-place effort made eight-hour days at $5 an hour in the cold confines of the machine shop where Stewart worked in Columbus, Indiana, seem unnecessary. Packing the rest of the 1993 season with Silver Crown, Sprint and Midget races across the nation, Stewart’s quick ascent up the racing ladder began.
When Stewart returned to Phoenix in November 1999, he was a rookie all over again, but this time in the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. While the rookie label was applicable to Stewart in NASCAR’s premiere series, 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, Indy cars, Supermodifieds and NASCAR Xfinity Series cars on the relatively flat, one-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.
This Sunday in the CampingWorld.com 500k, Stewart will make his 26th career Sprint Cup start at Phoenix. In 16 seasons as a Sprint Cup driver, Stewart has augmented that 1999 victory with eight top-fives, 12 top-10s and 555 laps led while completing 99.8 percent of the laps available.
Phoenix has often served as a bright spot for Stewart, and there’s no better time than now for some good fortune to shine on Stewart. The 2015 season has not begun well for the three-time Sprint Cup champion. Accidents in the season-opening Daytona 500 and the series’ second race at Atlanta left Stewart 35th in points coming into last Sunday’s race at Las Vegas, where an ill-handling racecar coupled with a steering box problem conspired for a 33rd-place finish.
From the ashes of the season’s first three races, Stewart wants to rise like the Phoenix. With 33 races still ahead of Stewart and his Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 team, there’s plenty of opportunity to renew the optimism they all shared before cars hit the racetrack in February at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
Phoenix has provided optimism before. In 2011 when Stewart was locked in a tight championship battle with Carl Edwards, he and the No. 14 team used Phoenix as a springboard to the championship. In the season’s penultimate race at Phoenix, Stewart led five times for a race-high 160 laps before finishing third. The performance meant only three points separated Stewart from Edwards before the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. There, Stewart kept the pressure on, leading four times for 65 laps en route to the race win and the series title.
Now a Sprint Cup veteran, Stewart returns to Phoenix seeking a return to the style of lights-out racing that has highlighted his career. Just as the Phoenix rises, so can Stewart’s fortunes at Phoenix.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is the biggest challenge to overcome during the first part of this new season?
“I think just learning the way the car is going to respond every week with the rules in place and finding the combination that works the best. We’re basically starting from scratch. There are some things that you take away from what we did last year, but anytime you have significant rules changes like the ones we have this year, that’s the No. 1 obstacle – trying to figure out what our Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy likes and dislikes so it gives you a direction in which to work.”
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, Supermodifieds, 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.”
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’m going to have to get a real job if I’m not 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.”
How hard did you have to race Jeff Burton back in the fall of 2011 to get that third-place finish?
“Every point counted. That’s why we raced Carl (Edwards) so hard and Kasey (Kahne) so hard. We led enough laps to lead the most laps. We were going for every single point we could get.
“I over-drove it in two corners before I finally passed him, but it just looked like he got a little tight and I was able to get rotated in the center and I got underneath him. But I don’t think he pushed the issue really hard. I think he raced us with respect and I appreciated that.”
- John Acosta
Director of Marketing, Customer Acquisition
Bass Pro Shops