KANNAPOLIS, N.C., – The start of NASCAR’s “Summer Swing” has always coincided with the first race following the annual Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway during Memorial Day weekend. The actual start of summer occurs sometime later and is more commonly referenced to as the Summer Solstice. A solstice is an astronomical event that occurs twice a year when the sun reaches its highest and lowest points. With the solstice serving as the first day of summer, the season officially commenced June 21.
For Tony Stewart, summertime has historically equated to summer fun with 23 of his 48 career Sprint Cup wins having been scored in June, July and August. That’s seven wins in June, nine in July and seven in August. Driving the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS, Stewart goes into the 16th point-paying race of the year aiming to sync the seasonal transition with the evolution of his 2015 season.
This year has served as a contradiction to Stewart’s brilliant Sprint Cup career which began in 1999 and along with his 48 wins, includes three series championships (2002, 2005 and 2011). He’s won at all but two tracks visited by NASCAR’s top series – Kentucky Speedway in Sparta and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Included on the long list of tracks at which the cagey veteran has earned a victory is Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, site of Sunday’s Save Mart 350k.
Stewart is a two-time winner at the 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course, and augmenting those trips to victory lane is a pole, three second-place finishes, five top-fives, nine top-10s and a total of 82 laps led in 16 Sprint Cup starts.
Road-course events are a different breed of racing. Success and failure are dependent on the driver’s ability to take charge of the car and the unique circumstances that go with road racing – namely, turning left and right. It’s the kind of racing relished by Stewart, who considers the road courses to be driver’s tracks. A look at his overall racing record is proof of that fondness.
Between Sonoma and the Sprint Cup Series’ second road-course venue in Watkins Glen, New York, Stewart has made 30 career road-course starts, earning seven wins, five second-place finishes, 12 top-fives and 19 top-10s while leading a total of 307 laps.
And Stewart’s road-course success hasn’t been limited to NASCAR. Outside of the elite Sprint Cup Series, he has a road-course trophy in IROC, having won round three of IROC XXX on the Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway road course en route to the series championship in 2006. He has also competed in the prestigious Rolex 24 At Daytona five times, with a best finish of third in 2005.
While Stewart’s traditional road-racing stats speak for themselves, an overview of his position in several loop data categories at Sonoma makes him a road scholar.
The Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops driver ranks first or second in a number of loop data categories, leading all drivers in fastest laps run with 79 and speed in traffic at 88.952 mph. He has the second-best average running position at 11.963, is the second-fastest driver early in a run at 90.509 mph, is the second-fastest driver late in a run at 89.509 mph, has the second-fastest green-flag speed at 89.993 mph and the second-most quality passes with 274. It all adds up to an overall driver rating of 98.8, which is third to Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon, respectively.
Further, Stewart has an average finish of 12.4 and has only failed to finish on the lead lap once – the track’s 2011 race where he ended up on the wrong end of a run-in with driver Brian Vickers with less than 25 laps to go. Stewart went from scoring a top-five finish to a career-worst road-course finish of 39th.
Gravitational pull has already dictated the Summer Solstice. A trip to Sonoma may be the trigger for Stewart to pull into victory lane.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Sonoma is a place you’ve had a lot of success. What is it about that track that allows you to be so successful?
“It’s just a fun track. It’s one of my favorite racetracks on the circuit and one I really look forward to every year. The worst thing they could ever do is repave it. As long as they don’t repave it, it’s great. It’s a very slippery racetrack, so it’s hard to get grip, and that puts it back in the driver’s hands. Sonoma is one of those tracks where you just don’t get a break. There’s really nowhere in the lap where you get a chance to relax and catch your breath. It’s a very busy lap around Sonoma.”
Is that why you think there have been 10 different winners there the last 10 years?
“That’s a good stat. It’s a fun place. I think – it used to be – 15 to 20 years ago there were only two to three guys who you could pretty much guarantee had a chance to win there. And now there are 12 to 15 guys who have a shot to win the race every year, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. I think that’s what makes the competition so much greater.”
The way you drive a road course, how does Mobil 1 technology help make a difference for you?
“It really does, especially when you take into consideration that fuel mileage is so important there. If you are in position and can short-pit everyone else and a caution comes out, it’s going to put you at the front of the line. The reduced friction and the reduced rolling resistance – everything that Mobil 1 does to make our cars more efficient – that’s the stuff that translates into our lap times and translates into our fuel mileage.”
Have you seen a change in attitude from the drivers toward Sonoma as far as the risks they may take because if they win there, they’re in the Chase?
“I don’t think the drivers are approaching it differently, but I do think the teams are approaching it differently, and I think you’ve seen that over the past eight or so years. The teams really pay a lot of attention to the two road courses. It’s no longer a situation where teams go into it with the mindset that we’re going to just build a car and see what we can get out of it. They know that can be the difference between making the Chase and not making the Chase. So a lot of teams put a lot of resources into the two road courses, knowing if you can get a win at Sonoma that it can lock down your spot in the Chase.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine