KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – After 18 years of Sprint Cup competition and 34 races at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway – a place he calls his “very favorite” track – No. 14 Code 3/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver Tony Stewart will take the green flag for the final time at the .75-mile oval Saturday night.
But this weekend isn’t about nostalgia for the 45-year-old Stewart. There’s work to be done, and lots of it.
The Richmond race marks the end of NASCAR’s 26-race regular season and signals the transition to the 16-team, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs that begin the following weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. Stewart will join SHR teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the playoffs.
As it’s been all season, Stewart and his Mike Bugarewicz-led team will use the Richmond race to get their No. 14 car ready for the Chase. After missing the first eight races of 2016 because of an offseason injury, Stewart’s June victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway and his seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts since his return have created a great deal of optimism in the No. 14 camp. The team hopes to regain the momentum it lost after a mechanical failure at Darlington (S.C) Raceway left it with a 35th-place finish in Sunday night’s Southern 500. Stewart is focused on closing out the season and his Sprint Cup career in strong fashion.
“The Chase is 10 weeks – it’s 10 hard weeks of racing – and it’s three, three-race segments to get to Homestead,” Stewart said. “In all of those races, you can’t leave anything on the table. You’ve got to use it up every week. It’s two-and-a-half months of your life that you’ve got to really focus hard on and be all in.”
While it’s understandable Stewart focuses on the big picture as a Chase driver and co-owner of a team with three Chase-qualified cars, don’t think the significance of his final race at Richmond will escape his attention. The three-time champion’s first of 49 career victories occurred at Richmond on Sept. 11, 1999 and, to this day, it remains one of his most cherished memories.
“That was probably the coolest moment in my career in NASCAR,” Stewart said.
The then-28-year-old Stewart outraced a 43-car field made up of about 10 current or likely future NASCAR Hall of Famers that included Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr., Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Terry and Bobby Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Darrell Waltrip. The victory came in just his 25th Sprint Cup race – an unheard-of fete when considering Davey Allison posted the last rookie victory in 1987. Stewart’s victory also came with a first-year team at Joe Gibbs Racing led by crew chief Greg Zipadelli who is now SHR’s competition director.
“We were a young Cup team,” Stewart said. “We didn’t have the best pit crew. We had young guys who went on to be great pit crew members, but we were still trying to figure out how to get on and off pit road well, they were still trying to figure out how to do good pit stops. We would lead, and then the caution would come out. We’d make our pit stop and lose five or six spots. Then, we would work our way methodically back up to the lead and lead until the next caution came out.
“Throughout that process, you were having to race guys. You couldn’t pass them in one corner or one straightaway. You would work on each individual guy running side-by-side with them for four or five laps before you could finish the pass. I just remember the whole race, racing those guys thinking, ‘This is the best of the best,’ and, ‘If I didn’t make any mistakes and stick to what I am doing here, I have a shot to win with these guys.’ It wasn’t a deal where I won it on fuel mileage or trick pit strategy. We were all on the same strategy the whole day. We just flat had to race those guys. I think that was the most proud I have ever been in a racecar.”
That night was the first of many successful nights at “America’s Premier Shortrack,” where Stewart has earned six victories – three in Sprint Cup, two in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and one in a Late Model stock car. He’s posted 11 top-five finishes in Sprint Cup competition and 19 top-10s and has led a total of 950 laps in his 34 career Sprint Cup starts at Richmond. His average Richmond start is 17.5, his average finish is 12.9, and he has a lap-completion rate of 98.3 percent.
Saturday night, Stewart hopes to add one more successful night to his Richmond memory book.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Why is Richmond your favorite track?
“I’ve always felt like Richmond was the ultimate drivers’ track. When we didn’t have all the downforce like we do now, you used to literally move around the racetrack. You didn’t get stuck in one groove. You could be fast there running two or three different ways, using three different lines. You could do what you needed to do to complement your car or not hurt it. That’s what I have always liked about it. It’s always going to be my favorite track.”
As a co-owner of SHR, what are your thoughts as the 2016 Chase approaches?
“We’re excited with three (Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch) drivers in the Chase this year. You figure, there are 16 spots in the Chase and we’ve almost got 25 percent of the spots with SHR. So we’re proud as an organization to be in that scenario. A lot of the organizations would love to have one car, let alone three, in the deal. Danica (Patrick) has one more shot to get in there Saturday at Richmond. If she could do that, it would make for a heck of year for SHR.”
What makes SHR so strong?
“When you have four cars on the track during a one-hour practice session, you have four hours of notes versus when you’ve got only one car you’ve got one hour of notes and don’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of. I think that’s what makes us a really strong organization – we have four drivers, four engineers, four crew chiefs who sit down in a room together and can talk about what our cars are doing. A lot of times, especially from a driver’s perspective, it’s just comforting to feel something in your racecar that may not feel right and have a teammate say, ‘Yeah, I’m feeling the same thing.’ It sort of validates what you’re feeling and it helps. A lot of times I think, having that many heads in the game there, we tend to be able to solve problems a lot quicker.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine