KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Some people battle insomnia by counting sheep at night while others try counting to 10 to curb their emotion in the heat of an argument. No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS driver Tony Stewart has a unique way to alleviate any frustration he encounters racing on the ultra-fast Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
“As weird is this is going to sound,” Stewart said with a laugh, “that helicopter ride out of the Michigan track to the airport is the one time all season when my head is glued to the window looking out, trying to count how many deer I see on the ride from the racetrack to the airport.”
Stewart, whose property at his Columbus, Indiana home is populated by all forms of nature, including an American bald eagle, says viewing the scenery in the Irish Hills after takeoff is therapeutic.
“If you have had a bad day, that’s the one thing that makes your day better – being able to see deer out in the field or seeing them at the edge of the woods. That seems to always take the edge off by the time you get to the airport.”
If history is any predictor, Stewart likely won’t have to be counting deer or anything else during his helicopter ride after Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400. The No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet driver for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) owns a victory, 12 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s and has led a total of 225 laps in his 33 career Sprint Cup starts at Michigan. His average Michigan start is 18.4, his average finish is 12.3, and he has a lap-completion rate of 94.8 percent.
Stewart success isn’t confined to the history books. He’s as good now as he has ever been. He’s scored the fifth-most points of any driver in the last 10 races. Stewart has scored top-10 finishes in seven of the 15 races he’s entered in 2016. That surge has changed the sport’s narrative on Stewart’s final year as a Sprint Cup driver. Instead of focusing on his retirement, fans, media and competitors are now factoring Stewart as a contender for his third title despite hitting a bump in the road Sunday at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, when a broken wheel hub sent him behind the wall for repairs and left him with a 30th-place finish.
Stewart’s final race at Bristol wasn’t a total loss. He celebrated teammate Kevin Harvick’s victory after the checkered flag with a series of post-race burnouts on the frontstretch.
“The funny part is, he (Harvick) got out of his car, got the flag, and then he goes, ‘Get in my car and go to victory lane with me.’ I went, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, just leave yours here.’ I’m like, ‘I just can’t just leave my car there,’ but that was cool. I was happy for those guys. Bristol is a hard place to win at. There are so many things that can go wrong. All it takes is one thing.”
Stewart’s own driving surge began when the Sprint Cup Series raced at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and Michigan in June. Stewart qualified sixth at Pocono and ran in the top-10 before a spin in traffic ruined his day. While not happy with the result, the No. 14 team felt like it found the speed in the car. The next weekend at Michigan, the team struggled in Friday practice before turning in a third-place qualifying run. The No. 14 Chevy raced in the top-five for most of the 200-lap event. As the race drew to a close, Stewart began reporting handling issues and dropped to 11th with 50 laps to go before rallying for the seventh-place finish. In the eight races since Michigan, Stewart has posted five top-fives.
For the June Michigan race, NASCAR introduced a new rules package that reduced downforce and sideforce stabilization, placing an emphasis on handling, plus driver skill and input. It created frenetic, three- and sometimes four-abreast racing on restarts, which saw Stewart dice with the leaders, often in hair-raising fashion. Each time the green flag flew, a mad scramble ensued with drivers using all four lanes in the 18-degree turns. Sunday’s race will include the same handling package used in June.
“I loved the new downforce package we raced there in June,” Stewart said. “I absolutely loved it. We got to drive the cars. We got to make a difference in the car and manipulate things. That is what we have all been wanting.”
With only Michigan, Darlington and Richmond left before the start of NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs, Stewart hopes to enter the 10-race Chase with as much momentum as possible. If by odd chance things don’t go well for him Sunday at Michigan, then don’t worry about Stewart – he’s got a sure-fire way of dealing with frustration after the race.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Why are the corners the key to success at Michigan?
“If you over-drive the entry a little bit too much, the amount of time it takes to get the front end of the car caught up and get it to where you can get back in the gas – you lose so much time there. With the corners being so big and so sweeping, having the flexibility to change your entry into the corner really pays off there – like two-tenths (of a second) better. On a track that size, it’s a lot of distance for that short of time.”
What was it like to make your final start at Bristol last week?
“I told myself the last 10 laps we weren’t racing anybody, there wasn’t anybody around us, I said, ‘Just enjoy these last 10 and just savor the moment and think about it.’”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine