On Your Mark
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 7, 2015) – It’s time to get ready.
That was the message Tony Stewart communicated last week as part of his announcement that the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season would be his last as a series regular. And when the 2016 season does conclude – more than 365 days from now – it will bring to a close one of the most decorated NASCAR careers and one that is destined to be acknowledged for its first-ballot hall-of-fame record.
While the pomp and circumstance that goes with a retirement tour has yet to commence, Stewart did make it clear that just because next season is his last does not mean he’s planning to ride it out. The three-time Sprint Cup champion will go into his final series campaign to win races and compete for a fourth title.
There are still seven races to go as part of the 2015 campaign, but the preparation for the next season has begun. There may not be a better track suited for foundation-building than Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, site of this weekend’s Bank of America 500, where Stewart will pilot the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
Racetracks tend to fall into one of five categories – short, mile, intermediate, superspeedway and road course. Charlotte is considered the standard-bearer for the majority of intermediate tracks visited by the Sprint Cup Series. Tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth were built in the same vein as the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval while others, such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, were reconfigured to echo the features of Charlotte.
And with the majority of events that make up the 36-race regular season taking place on intermediate-type tracks, Charlotte serves as a great litmus test for a team’s program. For his part, Stewart has shown he knows his way around such venues, with 22 of his 48 career Sprint Cup wins coming on intermediate tracks. That skill and experience will go a long way in establishing a game plan for the 2016 season.
That’s not to say, however, that Stewart is throwing in the towel for 2015. If anything, the fact that there is now a cap on the number of opportunities he has to add to his list of 48 Sprint Cup wins is motivation enough for the cagey veteran to take advantage of every potential prospect. And it just so happens that Saturday night’s 500-miler is a race for which Stewart already knows the way to victory lane.
This weekend, Stewart will make his 33rd career Sprint Cup start at Charlotte. He is a two-time winner at the track – first with the 2003 edition of the fall race, and second with his inaugural SHR win in 2009 during the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star race. When Stewart closed the proverbial deal at Charlotte in 2003, he did so with flair, starting sixth and leading a race-high 149 laps.
In addition to the wins, Stewart has scored two poles, six top-fives, 13 top-10s and has led 701 laps in his 17 years of Sprint Cup racing at Charlotte. Before his 18th and final year of Sprint Cup racing, Stewart has another opportunity to tame the “Beast of the Southeast” and set the tone for his final Sprint Cup season.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What does it take to be successful at Charlotte?
“It always seems like it’s a battle of trying to get your car to cut through the center of the corner and keep the forward drive in it. It seems like it’s a sacrifice of one or the other, but the two ends of the track are different. It seems like you can carry a lot more speed through (turns) one and two, and (turns) three and four are a little more thread-the-needle-type corners. Sometimes there isn’t a big difference between the fall and spring races at Charlotte. They’re spread out so far and they’re at the beginning of summer and the end of summer, so a lot of times they can be very similar.”
How important is it for you to win races and compete for a championship in what’s going to be your last year in Sprint Cup?
“It’s very important. I still want to win races and I can’t think of a better way to go out than to go out on top by winning races and winning a championship. We’re going to continue to put all of our effort toward that and I can promise you next year is not a ‘coast-and-collect’ year. It’s just the opposite because I don’t have to worry about making anybody mad next year and having to deal with it in 2017. We’ve just got to put something on the back of the car that reminds them that I’m not driving it anymore. I can rough everybody up next year, if that’s what it takes to accomplish my goals, and sit there and just smile and laugh about it at Homestead.”
So there’s no “mailing it in” next season?
“No. This added year is not just a ‘ride-it-out’ year. We are going to do everything we can to win races and win another championship. I’m looking forward to that.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine