KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – In his 30 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Bristol Motor Speedway dating back to 1999, Tony Stewart has endured a feast-or-famine existence at the half-mile, high-banked oval in eastern Tennessee.
The feasting has come in the form of a pole, a win, four top-threes, seven top-fives, nine top-10s and a total of 1,355 laps led. The famine has been nine finishes outside the top-25, oftentimes after a dominant run was derailed.
With the aptly-named Food City 500 next up for Stewart and his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS, he’s looking to restock the cupboards.
Stewart did just that in his most recent visit to Bristol when he finished fourth in last year’s Food City 500 – his first finish among the top-10 at Bristol since a second-place result in the 2010 Food City 500.
Stewart rallied from his 37th-place starting spot and a nearly four-hour rain delay to nab his first top-five of the 2014 season. After almost going a lap down early in the 500-lap race, Stewart steadily and patiently worked his way through the field, cracking the top-15 within the first 200 laps. A savvy, two-tire pit stop just past the 400-lap mark propelled the three-time Sprint Cup champion into the top-10.
When misfortune struck his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick in the form of a broken oil line that sent him out of the lead and into the turn one wall, Stewart motored low to avoid the train of cars that stacked up behind Harvick. Stewart emerged from the chaos in fourth place and held onto the position through the race’s final laps.
It was an important finish for Stewart who was only four races into his return from a broken right leg sustained the year before that kept him out of the car for the final 15 races of the 2013 season. The fourth-place finish righted what had been a tough start to the 2014 season, much like the start of this season has been tough for Stewart.
A repeat performance of last year’s Food City 500 would be a welcome reprieve for Stewart, whose best finish so far this season is a 14th-place effort March 22 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
In a race sponsored by a grocery store chain, Stewart could use some of Food City’s wares to quench his hunger to run up front.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Talk about your run in last year’s Food City 500.
“If you come out of Bristol with a top-five, you’ve had a good day. To start 37th and end up fourth is an even better day. Track position was big, like it always is there. We were pretty strong at the end, but we just couldn’t run down the three guys in front of us. Overall though, I was very happy with the day that we had.
You’ve had to work really hard at Bristol of late. You enjoyed success there early in your career, but the track has proven to be a challenge in recent years. Why?
“It’s a track where we’ve struggled. We’ve led a lot of laps there but we just don’t have the wins to show for it. It’s a track I definitely like. Everybody goes, ‘How can you like it when you’ve not had any success there for a while?’ To me, that’s just motivation. It gives us the ambition to be successful.”
What stands out during your years of racing at Bristol?
“It’s a hard race to win. You look at guys like Rusty Wallace who have had so much success and won so many races there, it shows you how good you have to be to win and win there consistently. It only takes one minor incident to screw up your day. You would think being a short-track race that if you have a great car you can get there, but normally one small mistake will take that opportunity away from you. Seems like you have better odds of something happening that keeps from you winning than you do of actually winning.”
Can you summarize your history at Bristol?
“Bristol is one of those places where you’ve got to have everything kind of go your way. If you have one hiccup, it’s hard to recover from it. We’ve only won one race there and we’ve kind of been all over the board. It’s been feast or famine for us. It’s like if you have one problem in the first half of the race, it’s hard to recover from it. It makes for a very long day. We’ve had more long days than good days.”
What do you enjoy most about racing at Bristol?
“I’ve always liked that the crowd is right there at the edge of the track – all the way around it. You can just feel the excitement from the fans. The fans that go to Bristol are passionate about racing. And whether they like you or hate you, they love their racing at Bristol. I’d say the fans are the best part of Bristol. It’s just a cool place and a cool atmosphere, and it’s because of the fans.”
How miserable is it when you get several laps down at a track like Bristol?
“It’s a place where it’s hard to have a good day. There are so many variables that can go wrong at Bristol versus other tracks. If you have that one bad incident that gets you in the back, it’s hard to recover from that. There are guys who have done it and do a good job at it, but you have to have a great racecar to be able to recover from something bad, especially if you get laps down. It’s like going from the bottom of the mountain and climbing and climbing and not getting anywhere. You fight and fight and fight and at the end of the day you’re right where you were when you had your problem.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine