KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – If there is any doubt Tony Stewart still has the desire and ability to win a race in his final year of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, then look no further than the June 12 race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, where the three-time champion posted the fourth-best average running position of 5.2 over 400 miles before finishing seventh.
The Michigan finish, combined with running up front at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway the previous weekend, as well as consecutive top-six qualifying efforts in the last two races, have many asking if there is a rejuvenated Tony Stewart heading to Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway this weekend to drive the Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in Sunday’s Save Mart 350.
No. 14 crew chief Mike Bugarewicz admits Stewart grows more confident in himself and the team with each success, but the real reason behind the recent good fortune has more to do with the calendar than anything else.
“This is more or less just our sixth race together since the season started,” said Bugarewicz, a first-year crew chief.
Stewart missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident. Brian Vickers and Ty Dillon filled in during his absence, but Stewart’s first race in 2016 didn’t occur until April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
Since his return, the team has worked to improve communication, which in racing terms means the process of driver and crew figuring out adjustments in practice, qualifying and races that make the car faster – something longtime driver-crew chief combinations in the Sprint Cup garage have had years to perfect.
“We just keep communicating better and getting better as a team every week,” said Bugarewicz, who served the last three years as the lead engineer on SHR’s No. 4 Chevrolet driven by Kevin Harvick. “We are making the gains needed to go forward to win. You can never have enough communication. Each week that we are getting better, he’s happier, he’s more confident and I’m more confident, and that continues to build.”
NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver that made him eligible for the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs and compete for the series championship. To make the Chase, Stewart will have to race his way in by winning at least once and ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points. Heading into the weekend, Brian Scott is 30th with 197 points. Stewart is 35th with 152 points.
If Stewart keeps running like he has in recent races, then he’ll likely secure a top-30 position in the points. Winning a race will be the bigger challenge. In his final year before NASCAR retirement, everyone in the garage would like to see Stewart in the 2016 Chase.
Bugarewicz has the desire and a blueprint on getting Stewart to victory lane.
“We are certainly going to try,” he said. “Everyone wants to win and it’s a very competitive series. It takes running in the top-five every week and leading laps to have a shot to win. We still have to do that. We need to run in the top-five and lead laps. When we do that, I think it will come.”
Sonoma is a track where Stewart could well earn that victory. He has a pole, two wins, three second-place finishes, five top-fives, nine top-10s and has led a total of 82 laps in his 17 career Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma. His average start at the 1.99-mile, 10-turn road course is 11.4 and his average finish is 12.4. He’s one of the best on road courses, in general. In his 32 career road-course starts in Sprint Cup – 17 at Sonoma and 15 at Watkins Glen – Stewart has 12 top-twos and 19 top-10s and has led a total of 307 laps.
Stewart’s 18th and final race weekend at Sonoma Raceway will be memorable. On Friday, the track will induct him and Ernie Irvan into the Sonoma Raceway Wall of Fame.
“I have a long history at Sonoma and a lot of memories there, and to be inducted into the Wall of Fame is a real honor,” said Stewart, who made his first Sonoma start in 1999. “I’ve always loved the challenge of road-course racing and I’m proud of all that we’ve accomplished at Sonoma. Hopefully, we can put a third win on the board this weekend.”
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Do you look forward to Sonoma Raceway?
“I love it out there. It’s probably a close second on favorite tracks behind Richmond. It’s just a challenging racetrack. It’s a track where you just have to get into a rhythm. A lap around there, you just don’t get much time to relax so when you get in the race, you have to be spot on the whole time.”
Has road-course racing changed over the years?
When I started, I think there were probably two legitimate contenders to win road-course races. Now you can look at it and say there are 15 or 16 guys who could put together a good day if they don’t get wrecked and have a shot at winning. It is much like Martinsville. Sonoma becomes a demolition derby at the end. If you can get a long run to get to the end of it, it makes it nice. If you get a restart with 10 laps or less, it is an absolute demolition derby. There are a lot of places two cars don’t fit very well, side-by-side, and somebody always gets the short end of the stick. There are a lot of areas where guys can dive down there and take your line away and put guys in a bad spot. That always seems to bite somebody. There are a lot of drivers who have their feelings hurt and are upset when they leave there. I have been in that situation a lot of times”
Thoughts on last weekend’s third-place start and seventh-place finish at Michigan?
“I’m tickled to death with that finish. That is the kind of weekend from start to finish out of this group that I have been looking forward to all year. That was proof we can do it.”
What about visiting Wine Country?
“I’m not a big wine drinker, but the area is nice to look at. I can’t say I enjoy all the things the crew chiefs, owners and wives go do, but some of the crew guys and I find some things around the area that we like to do together that we have made a stop at every year and made a tradition of going to each year.”
MIKE BUGAREWICZ, Crew chief of the No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What are your thoughts on Sonoma?
“We are really looking forward to it, especially with the momentum we built at Michigan. Obviously, Tony is a very talented road-course racer and has a good history there at Sonoma. We are trying to build a really good road-course car for him. We think this is another good opportunity for us to get a win and we’re working really hard toward that.”
What went right at Michigan?
“Just from the start, we were off on the right foot. We kept making improvements through each practice and, obviously, qualifying went really well for us. Adjustments made during qualifying sessions, round to round, made the car better. That really built the confidence going into the next day and it just kept building from there. Nowadays, a good starting spot is a key to the race and that was the best we’ve started with Tony so far this year. We stayed up front all day and had a good finish.”
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