KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Finding success in the ultra-competitive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is hard. Sustaining success is even harder, but it’s something Tony Stewart has done since his rookie year in 1999. For 17 years Stewart has been a fixture in Sprint Cup, amassing three championships, 48 point-paying wins, 182 top-fives and 298 top-10s with 12,767 laps led spread out among 562 starts.
In his rookie season, Stewart quickly advanced from young up-and-comer to NASCAR superstar. It began with a pole in just his eighth career Sprint Cup start in April at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. It grew with a win in the non-points Winston Open in May at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. A near-win in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, where Stewart led 118 of 300 laps before a thirsty fuel cell left him 10th, let everyone know that a trip to victory lane in a point-paying race was only a matter of time.
That time finally came on Sept. 11, 1999 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Stewart started second and promptly led 333 of the race’s 400 laps to earn his first career Sprint Cup victory, becoming the first Sprint Cup rookie to win a race since Davey Allison on May 3, 1987 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Despite his rookie status, Stewart knew the Richmond layout well. Before he came to NASCAR, Stewart made a name for himself in the United States Auto Club (USAC), running high-horsepower, open-wheel Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown cars. While in USAC, Stewart competed at Richmond, running a Midget and a Silver Crown car. And during his ascendancy to Sprint Cup, Stewart made three NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at the track.
When Stewart first took to Richmond in a Sprint Cup car in May 1999, he instantly felt comfortable. Despite finishing a quiet 15th, Richmond immediately became a favorite of Stewart’s. When he came back to Richmond in September and left holding his first Sprint Cup trophy, Richmond cemented its status as Stewart’s favorite track.
This weekend, Stewart returns to Richmond intent on regaining the swagger that earned him two more Sprint Cup wins at the .75-mile oval, along with two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victories and a Late Model win.
Stewart has had a rough start to the 2015 season, but last Sunday at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, progress was made in the form of a sixth-place finish. With Richmond next on the docket for Stewart and his No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops team of Stewart-Haas Racing, optimism runs high.
It should. Augmenting Stewart’s three Sprint Cup wins at Richmond are 11 top-fives and 19 top-10s with a total of 950 laps led, which ranks Stewart fourth among active drivers behind only Jeff Gordon (1,637), Denny Hamlin (1,390) and Kevin Harvick (985).
Just eight races into the 36-race marathon that is the Sprint Cup Series, Stewart’s season is still young, and it can begin anew at the track where it all began.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How much has changed since 1999?
“Everything about the sport has changed since ’99. The cars have changed. The horsepower has changed. The tires have changed. The entire sport has changed. The thing that’s still the same is you’ve got the greatest cars and the greatest drivers trying to win the race each week.”
You’ve had a lot of success at Richmond and we’ve heard you say it’s one of your favorite tracks. What is it about Richmond that fuels your affinity for the track?
“It’s not one of my favorite tracks, it is my favorite track. It’s the perfect-sized track for a Cup race. The other short tracks we run – Bristol and Martinsville – they’re cool in their own right, but there’s a lot of congestion at those two tracks. But at Richmond, it just seems like that extra quarter-mile, and that three-quarter-mile shape, and how wide the groove gets there, allows for good racing. It seems like we have to race ourselves and race the racetrack versus racing each other a lot of times. You do have to race each other, obviously, but there are a lot of times during the race when you have the flexibility to move around on the racetrack and try to find a spot your car likes better than somewhere else. A lot of times on a short track you don’t have the flexibility. You’re more narrowed down with what groove you’re going to be in. It is literally the favorite track of mine on the circuit.”
What does it take to be successful at Richmond?
“As much as you’re racing everybody else, you have to race the racetrack. It just seems like a place where if you can get the balance right it makes it an extremely fun day. With the two ends of the track being different like they are, it seems like you’re always fighting something, but that’s what always makes the racing good, too. You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect. Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
What has been the most challenging part of 2015 for you?
“Part of this year, for me, is trying to get caught back up and to get back up to speed with the change in the rules package and the engine package. I’m used to driving really high-horsepowered cars and when they took the horsepower away from us, that’s something that was different for me. So, I’m trying to figure out how to get used to it and how to make corner speed. It’s a matter of me changing my driving style to compensate for what the rules package is. That’s something that Kevin (Harvick, teammate) has really hit on – both last year and this year – and Kurt’s (Busch, teammate) been figuring it out pretty quick. Danica (Patrick, teammate) has had some strong runs too. I just need to catch up with my teammates.”
How much have you tried the things that are working for your Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, namely Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch?
“Every driver has a feel that they look for, and the hard thing is that we’ve tried numerous times what Kevin and Kurt are running and we can’t seem to get comfortable with it. It doesn’t matter how fast that setup is, if you don’t get comfortable with it, you’re not going to make it go fast. We’re still trying the things they’ve figured out that are making them successful and learning how to adapt them to the feel that I’m looking for.”
- Jonathan Paluga
Director of Marketing & Sales
Armor All & STP Brands