KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – More often than not, sequels rarely live up to the expectations set by their original. Devoid of imagination, follow-ups can be lackluster and generate a sensation of having “been there, done that.”
It’s a sentiment Tony Stewart aims to buck this weekend at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn where he will pilot the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
The high-drag package that debuted on Sprint Cup cars three weeks ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway makes its return this weekend at Michigan. Featuring a 9-inch spoiler (a 3-inch increase), as well as other aerodynamic changes, the package was intended to generate more drag and disrupt downforce. While downforce was slightly affected, the greater impact was to the air around the cars. This was especially true when cars raced nose-to-tail, as the disrupted air created less stability for the cars as they barreled into the corners.
Expectations are that the second go-around with the design will achieve better results given the differences between Indianapolis and Michigan. Indianapolis is relatively flat, 2.5-mile rectangle with four tight corners, resulting in a single racing groove. Michigan, on the other hand, is a 2-mile, D-shaped oval with long sweeping corners that produces multiple racing grooves. Those grooves encourage more side-by-side racing, providing a better barometer for the capabilities of the high-drag package being experimented by NASCAR.
For his part, Stewart looks forward to seeing the sequel of the high-drag package at Michigan. In its debut at Indianapolis, Stewart qualified fourth and ran as high as second before a series of late-race restarts thwarted his pit strategy and left him 28th when the checkered flag dropped.
Even more promising, however, is how Stewart followed up the Indy effort. One week after Indy, Stewart traveled to the 2.5-mile Pocono (Pa.) Raceway where he again qualified among the top-five. Ultimately, a potential top-five run was scuttled when he ran out of fuel on the final lap, but it was still strong enough for Stewart to cross the stripe in ninth to earn his second top-10 finish of 2015.
Then just last week at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, Stewart qualified a season-best third and was running in fifth when a part failure eliminated him from the race a little more than 30 laps from the finish.
Now Stewart comes to the Irish Hills of Michigan where his turn in fortune could be aided by some good luck. In 31 career Sprint Cup starts at Michigan, Stewart has 12 top-fives and 20 top-10s. Of those top-fives, eight have been results of third or better, highlighted by a victory in June 2000 where Stewart rallied after starting 28th, the second farthest back any Sprint Cup driver has come to win at Michigan. (Mark Martin won in June 2009 after starting 32nd.)
Whether Stewart’s performance during the last few weeks is a sign of better days ahead is yet unknown. But a second chance with a different aero package could help expedite Stewart’s return to the contender status that made him a 48-time race winner and three-time Sprint Cup champion.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Given your performance during the last few weeks, do you think the team has reached a turning point in performance?
“I don’t know that we can say that yet, but I know we’re starting to kind of get a better read on things a little bit. It’s been a decent couple of weeks, but I still think it’s a little early to put judgment on whether we’ve got it figured out or not. We’ve qualified well the last three weeks and that certainly has been a bonus.”
Is there any one thing you can point to for the way things are trending for the No. 14 team?
“Like I said a couple weeks ago, one race could turn things around for us, but when I say that I’m not talking about winning a race on pit strategy, but by getting our car working and winning a race outright. As far as one thing I could point to, I don’t think there is any one thing. We go in every week thinking it’s the week things will turn around, and a lot of times that hasn’t happened. We had a good run going at Indy and then things didn’t work out. Pocono is probably the best example of a good race weekend for us from start to finish. We struggled during the first part of that race but got better the last third, and were actually even better in the final laps. We definitely have picked up from the way our season has been. Indy we picked up, Pocono we picked up and we picked up at Watkins Glen. At the end of the day, I know we don’t have the results to show for it, but I think we’re definitely starting to gain some momentum.”
What kind of opportunity does Michigan present?
“With the repave a couple years ago, it’s just lightning fast. And the groove is getting wider and wider so it’s easier to race there. It’s definitely just a fast, fast racetrack. We talk about momentum. Momentum is a huge deal there. You carry so much speed to the turns, and the corners are so long and so round, you have to be very smooth there.”
It’s been a few years since Michigan was repaved. How much has it changed?
“It just keeps getting better. That first year, once it cleaned off, it seemed like the track got to be pretty good. It was still a relatively one-groove track but it got better as the weekend went on. It was even better last year and, really, we should see more of the same, even with the higher speeds. It was a lot racier than I thought it would be right off the bat, and it’s just been getting better. We probably didn’t get as great a read on it in June because of all the red flags but even with all of the rain you saw that the path has continued to widen with some of the lines the guys were able to make work.”
- Charlie Brim
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