KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (March 17, 2015) – Now in his 17th year as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Tony Stewart has learned a thing or two about navigating the series’ marathon-like schedule.
Thirty-six point-paying events lasting two to three days at 23 venues across the United States are packed into a 10-month span beginning in mid-February and carrying through the penultimate weekend of November. It’s a challenge that has yielded only seven different Sprint Cup champions in the last 14 years when the schedule expanded to its current 36-race slate in 2001.
The Sprint Cup schedule is a true test of a champion, for it emphasizes resolve, tenacity, fortitude and, above all, perseverance. Three times Stewart has earned champion status (2002, 2005 and 2011), and in each of those title runs, there was plenty of adversity to overcome.
Adversity has found Stewart early in 2015, and it is also proving to be tenacious. It has a tight hold on Stewart because four races into his 2015 campaign, the veteran racer finds himself an uncharacteristic 36th in points with a 30th-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway being his best result.
While the duration of the Sprint Cup season can be taxing, the sheer number of its events provides opportunity. Even with four races in the books, 32 races remain. And the 22 races that still exist between now and the cutoff for the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is still two more races than the entire Formula One schedule, six more races than the whole IndyCar Series schedule and 12 more races than the Tudor United SportsCar Championship.
Stewart has been dogged by bad fortune, but there are many more hands to be dealt. It’s why he’ll keep on truckin’ this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, site of Sunday’s Auto Club 400. It’s appropriate, as Stewart will pilot the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/
Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
A subsidiary of Rush Enterprises, Inc., Rush Truck Centers is the premier service solutions provider to the commercial vehicle industry and the United States’ largest network of truck and bus dealerships, representing industry-leading brands. With more than 100 vehicle centers strategically located in high-traffic areas or near major highways, Rush Truck Centers operate as one-stop centers offering an integrated approach to the needs of its customers.
As a partner of SHR since 2010, Rush Truck Centers has played an integral role in getting the team’s racecars to and from the track. The relationship evolved and the company signed on to be the primary sponsor for Stewart at three events in 2013. In 2015, Rush Truck Centers serves as a primary sponsor of Stewart and the No. 14 team for five races, with the Auto Club 400 serving as its kickoff.
In last year’s race at Fontana where the No. 14 machine carried the colors of Rush Truck Centers, Stewart finished fifth. It was his seventh top-five at the 2-mile oval, and it augmented his two victories, 13 top-10s and 332 laps led in 23 career Sprint Cup starts at Fontana.
A strong finish like that is all Stewart wants after the first two legs of NASCAR’s “Western Swing” through Las Vegas and Phoenix left him reeling. It will be a long haul to climb back up the point standings, but for someone representing Rush Truck Centers, the long haul is a way of life.
The Sprint Cup schedule has been Stewart’s way of life for 17 years, and beyond the three championships he’s earned in that span are 48 point-paying wins, 15 poles, 182 top-fives and 297 top-10s with 12,759 laps led.
Fontana has been a key contributor to those numbers, especially recently, as Stewart has finished among the top-10 seven times in his last 10 races at Auto Club Speedway.
Despite his start to the season, Stewart expects to add to those numbers come Sunday. And the only way to get there is the only way he knows how – to keep on truckin’.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What stands out about your last win at Fontana, other than it being shortened by rain?
“It really boiled down to Denny Hamlin and myself. We were, at different times, the fastest cars on the track, but I was really happy with my car. We didn’t have to adjust very much with it and I felt like we had a car that had a lot of adjustability to it later in the day. Really from the drop of the green flag through the course of the race, and to the part where we actually got rain, we had a dominant car. Denny had spots where he was the fastest and I think he had room to gain to close that ground. They were definitely en route to do that when the rain came, but I think it was really going to be down to the two of us for the rest of the day, regardless of the weather.”
Fontana is a track with multiple racing grooves which places the race a little more in the driver’s hands. Do you appreciate that, and how soon do you start moving around the track testing the other grooves?
“It’s nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you’re not relying so much on the car. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day. As far as when to start trying the different grooves, really from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out because what works for one part of the race may not work at another point. Basically, it’s as soon as you feel like you’re not where you need to be. If you feel like you’re slower than the pace you need to be running, you’re going to move up the racetrack and find a place that helps balance your racecar.”
While Fontana may look similar to Las Vegas, where we raced two weeks ago, is it?
“It’s more like Michigan. Las Vegas is sort of a track all its own. I’m not sure that it has the amount of banking that Michigan has, but it is a flatter track than Michigan. The way you approach the weekend is pretty much the same as far as setups on the Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevy go.”
Drivers have won at Fontana by taking two tires instead of four on their last pit stop. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?
“I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it’s fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don’t have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Fontana is a track where if your car’s good, then it doesn’t matter whether you take two tires or four.”
Fontana is a fast racetrack. What’s the key to being fast at Fontana?
“If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he’ll tend to run away. That’s just the characteristic of that kind of track. It’s fast, it’s flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he’s off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it’ll help them in the long run. You end up racing the racetrack instead of each other.”
Rush Truck Centers is back as a primary sponsor. How did that relationship come about?
“We’ve been doing business with Rush Truck Centers for years. It’s an established relationship that has a much higher profile thanks to Rush Truck Centers becoming a primary sponsor with our team. Rush Truck Centers keeps our trucks and transporters up and running, and you could argue those are the most important parts of our race team. Without them, our cars never get to the racetrack. The employees of Rush Truck Centers are as detail-oriented as we are, and they play a critical role in the success of our race team.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine