KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Since being added to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2001, Kansas Speedway in Kansas City has been a welcome stop for Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). In addition to his two wins at the 1.5-mile oval in 2006 and 2009, Stewart owns six top-five and nine top-10 finishes, has led 152 laps, and completed all but 45 of the laps that have been available to him in his 17 career starts at the track for a lap completion rate of 99 percent.
To Stewart, however, it’s all irrelevant. That was then. This is now. And for now, the three-time Sprint Cup champion simply wants this weekend’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400 to be the turning point in his 2015 Sprint Cup campaign.
Stewart’s struggles this season have been well-documented. The challenge of negotiating the 2015 rules package, which features a decrease of 125 horsepower and a 30 percent reduction in downforce, have conspired against Stewart. For a driver who made his career driving racecars with more horsepower than could be put to the pavement, Stewart likens the 2015 rules package to learning calculus without having taken precalculus. It’s a combination that goes against everything Stewart has successfully accomplished behind the wheel of a racecar.
While 2015 has been a disappointment to Stewart, there have been signs of a shift in the last month. Stewart earned a sixth-place finish three weeks ago at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Two weeks ago, Stewart had what looked to be a top-10 result at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway fall by the wayside after a midrace incident eliminated him from contention.
Stewart is quick to note, however, that while intermittent success can help build momentum, it’s consistency that will sustain the team’s efforts. The forthcoming shift in the Sprint Cup schedule could be a mitigating factor in facilitating the turning point Stewart seeks.
To date, the 10 races run on the Sprint Cup schedule have included events of all types with races at short tracks, intermediate tracks and superspeedways. The only thing the series has yet to see is a road course, and those are forthcoming, beginning with a June stop at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. Aside from the season’s two road-course races, intermediate tracks become the theme for the next 13 stops on the Sprint Cup tour, and it all begins this weekend in Kansas.
For historical reference, the bulk of Stewart’s success at Kansas was scored on a surface that no longer exists. In addition to a massive repaving project during the summer of 2012, the track was reconfigured to include progressive banking of 17 to 20 degrees. In the five Sprint Cup races that have played out at Kansas since the facelift, Stewart’s best outing is a fifth-place result earned in the fall of 2012. It’s a five-race stretch, however, that could be slightly misleading.
Stewart has run only four of the five races run at the “new” Kansas. Rules packages have changed a couple of times since the fall of 2012, and the first of Kansas’ two races has gone from being a day race in mid-April to an event that begins in late afternoon and ends under cool, dark skies on Mother’s Day weekend. Those are significant changes that, in the past, Stewart has assuaged with his vast experience of navigating almost any kind of racing surface in nearly every kind of car.
The intermediate track attack kicks off this week in Kansas. It’s a schedule shift, one where Stewart and Co. seek a shift in fortune.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
The first of your two Kansas wins came in 2006, and it came in a fuel-mileage race. How’d you do it?
“It was a battle between the driver and the crew chief. The crew chief is yelling at you every lap to save fuel, but you’re not slowing down enough and he knows it because he’s looking at the stopwatch. When you’ve got guys behind you, you know you don’t want to give those spots up in case they happen to make it on fuel. So, I tried to save as much fuel as I could and still hold guys off. We were able to take the chance because we had nothing to lose. Not being in the Chase that year gave us that opportunity to take the chance and go ahead and run for it.”
When you took the checkered flag, you were out of gas. What were your thoughts inside the car when you knew you had run out?
“When we were coming down the backstretch, I asked how many laps we had left and they said, ‘You’re coming to the white (flag).’ Then I saw the needle start bouncing and it wasn’t on zero, but it was down to three pounds (of fuel pressure) and bouncing up and down. We came down the frontstretch and it started losing pressure when we went into turn one. Then it caught up for a second but, as soon as we came off turn two, it lost pressure immediately. It’s just important to get it kicked out of gear right away and just get down low on the racetrack and take the shortest distance around. We just coasted around and hoped we had enough of a lead to stay out front. Turned out we did.”
Your second Kansas win came in 2009. How decisive was the call to take two tires instead of four on your final pit stop to win that race?
“We made a great call getting two (tires) and the guys had an awesome stop. That was really what it boiled down to. We got that track position at the end and we had the luxury of being able to pick the inside or outside lane on the restart, and I kind of debated back and forth which side I needed to be on. But I kind of struggled when I was stuck on the bottom on restarts. So, I took a gamble and went to the top and got enough of a lead on Kasey (Kahne) to get down to the bottom that, by the time we got to (turns) one and two, I was able to run my line. We got enough of a gap right off the bat that it gave me the flexibility to run my own line, run my own pace and let those guys have to worry about catching us.”
But Jeff Gordon was catching you toward the end of the race. How did you hold him off?
“We just kind of ran our pace. When somebody starts running you down, it’s easy to over-drive your car trying to maintain a gap, and you end up making it worse on yourself. So even though I saw Jeff getting bigger in the mirror, I didn’t want to burn the tires off in case we got a caution and we got a green-white-checkered (finish), so we just ran hard enough to not abuse the tires. It’s like he could get so close and then he couldn’t get any closer. When he got up there, he got tight and he had to run pretty hard to get by Greg Biffle, and then to run us down. By then, he pretty much got the good of his tires and we got the luxury to kind of, on that restart, run our own pace and take care of it and make sure we made it last the whole way.”
You seemingly had the race won at Kansas back in 2007, only to see it turn 180 degrees and end up with a 39th-place finish.
“That was just circumstances. We were able to win a fuel mileage race there where we really weren’t in a position to win but, because of our situation in the point standings, we were able to gamble and go for it. Somebody else that day lost a race they should’ve won, and that year may have been one of those for us. But it all comes out in the wash and it all averages out, eventually.”
Is what happened to you in 2007 at Kansas a prime example of how fickle this sport can be?
“There are guys out there on different agendas, especially with the Chase format. There are guys each week who have a different agenda of what they’re trying to accomplish with that day’s race. There are guys who have the opportunity to take chances, and there are guys who don’t have the opportunity to take chances. With that, it creates a lot of different scenarios at the end of the day. We took a chance that year. The scenario we had projected for ourselves just didn’t work out.”
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