KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Tony Stewart has never shrunk from the spotlight. Fame is just one of those things that goes hand-in-hand with success – something all too familiar for the drivers who have made it to the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And a driver’s desire for success – leading laps, winning races, chasing championships – is an intrinsic trait that bears no guise.
On occasion, however, some may elect to skirt the attention that success breeds. Even a three-time Sprint Cup champion like Stewart can, at times, be found attempting to blend in rather than stand out.
In a word, it’s about camouflage. And it can be a necessary technique for navigating the pitfalls that exist when drivers operate within inches of each other as part of a 200 mph freight train – the very type of racing that will unfold during the Geico 500 Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Stewart makes his 32nd Sprint Cup start at Talladega this weekend driving the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), which coincidentally carries an authentic stripe of True Timber® Camo. Through his 17 years of competing at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, Stewart has seen his fair share of races unfold like the evolutionary theory of survival of the fittest, coming out on both the losing and winning ends.
Twice Stewart has enjoyed the spoils of success at Talladega, both in 2008. The first came in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in April, when he won from the pole, leading five times for a race-high 81 laps in the 117-lap race. The second came in the Sprint Cup Series in October when he outdueled Regan Smith for the win in a green-white-checkered finish.
While Stewart has merely dabbled in the Xfinity ranks, making only six Talladega starts in the undercard series, the bulk of his work has come in the ultracompetitive Sprint Cup Series. More often than not, Stewart has successfully worked the draft, flying under the proverbial radar – camouflaged – and stalking the pace from behind the pack before ultimately positioning himself well for a win amid the last-lap chaos.
For his efforts, Stewart has scored six second-place finishes, tying him with Buddy Baker for the most runner-up finishes at Talladega. Additionally, Stewart has nine top-fives, 13 top-10s and 322 laps led. He’s completed all but 182 of the 5,874 laps that have been run in his 31 Talladega starts since 1999 for a lap completion rate of 96.9 percent. On the flip side, Stewart has a total of eight DNFs (Did Not Finish) at the track – six of which occurred in the closing laps.
Although there are plenty of restrictor-plate races that have gone sideways for Stewart, he’s also had his fair share go according to plan, especially when combining his results from Talladega’s sister track, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, where he is patiently working his way through the track’s record books.
To date, Stewart has four point-paying Sprint Cup wins in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, three wins in the Budweiser Duel qualifying race, three victories in the non-points Sprint Unlimited, two IROC Series wins and, most recently in February 2013, he scored a record-tying seventh Xfinity Series victory, joining the late Dale Earnhardt. Tally them all up and Stewart owns 21 wins on NASCAR’s restrictor-plate tracks.
A cagey veteran, Stewart learned long ago the value of the trusted adage “to finish first, one must first finish.” The formula for finishing first this weekend in Talladega includes a little luck, a fast racecar and the perfectly timed charge for the lead.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How would you rate yourself as a restrictor-plate racer?
“Well, I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks. We’ve run in the top-two at Talladega a gazillion times. I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”
How will you approach qualifying at Talladega?
“I just want to take care of my Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevy. You’re not going to win the race in the pits. You’re going to win Talladega on the track. It’s more important to make sure we’ve got a good Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevy for the race than we do for qualifying.”
It seems that luck plays as much of a factor at Talladega and Daytona as everything else. Why is that?
“Someone described racing on the superspeedways as being a combination of a science project and the luck of a casino, and it’s exactly that way. You do everything in your power to take care of the science or technology side. You do everything you can to build the fastest car. If you don’t have the luck to go with it – even if you don’t have any drama with getting the car touched, nothing happens to the car – if you’re just in the wrong spot at the wrong time, it can take you out of the opportunity to take the best racecar in the field and win.”
When you’re in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the racecar?
“It depends on the circumstances. You can’t see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a really big tow, or you hit a pocket where it seems they’re getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? It’s trial and error but, at the same time, it’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, your car’s torn up. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”
How much translates from Daytona to Talladega?
“They’re different tracks with their own characteristics, but it’s plate racing and that really doesn’t change. Daytona has always been billed as being more of the handling track, but we’re still drafting and we’ll be in a pack where you’ve got cars on top of each other. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, and that’s the same whether we’re racing at Daytona or Talladega.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine