KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – It’s not going to be easy, but the task is pretty simple.
If Tony Stewart wants to keep his hopes for a fourth career Sprint Cup title in his final year of NASCAR competition alive, he’ll need to walk out of Dover (Del.) International Speedway late Sunday afternoon with the trophy, or land in the top 12 among the 16 drivers in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. Stewart arrives in Delaware 15th, just 11 points out of 12th, after two of the three first-round races that will ultimately eliminate a quarter of the Chase field.
Nobody knows the situation or the urgency any better than Stewart, who’ll be gunning for a strong run or a win Sunday that assures advancement to the second round. With more than a dozen of the Chase drivers aiming for the same result, the last 50 laps on the high-speed, high-banked, concrete mile oval could be some of the best racing of the season.
Stewart said the high-stakes, intense racing expected Sunday in Dover and throughout the remaining Chase races is why the bracket format was added in 2014.
“What we have seen the last couple of years is a very good example of how chaotic and hectic each phase of the playoffs are,” he said. “There is so much emphasis on winning that guys are going way above what they normally do just to ensure they go to the next round. There’s no lack of intensity there. It seems like the further into the Chase you get, that energy and intensity ramp up.”
Stewart is 15th in the Chase because he logged a 16th-place result at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois in the Chase opener and finished 23rd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon last weekend. History says Stewart should excel at Dover, where he owns three wins, 11 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s and has led a total of 1,075 laps in his 34 career Sprint Cup starts. Stewart is the only driver in Sunday’s field to race at Dover in an Indycar – in 1998, he won the pole and finished eighth. His pole speed that weekend was 185.204 mph – about 25 mph faster than Friday’s expected Sprint Cup pole speed.
Stewart didn’t enjoy his most recent trip to the “Monster Mile” in May, when a multicar accident minutes into Friday practice forced him to a backup car. Stewart started 34th and raced as high as 15th and looked to be in contention for a top-10 finish. But those hopes faded when his car’s track bar broke, rupturing an oil line and ending his race with 58 laps to go and a 34th-place finish.
“Dover’s been a good track to us in the past but hasn’t been lately,” said Stewart, who hasn’t posted a top-10 finish at Dover since he won the spring 2013 race. “Hopefully, this weekend will be different.”
Stewart’s car will have a different look this weekend on the Delaware concrete high banks. It will carry the all-brown, Nature’s Bakery Double Chocolate Brownies paint scheme for the first time this season.
No matter what happens Sunday in Dover, Stewart’s 18th and final season in the sport has been a study in perseverance and, ultimately, success. After missing the first eight races in 2016 due to an offseason injury, Stewart has posted five top-fives and seven top-10s in 20 races. The highlight of the season came with his 49th career victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June.
Stewart won’t be above scoreboard watching on Sunday. Not only will he keep track of the drivers he’s close to in points, he’ll also monitor the progress of fellow Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Kevin Harvick, whose victory at New Hampshire last weekend secured a spot in the second round, and Kurt Busch, who sits 11th in the Chase with a 20-point cushion over 13th place.
Dover promises to be a momentous weekend for Stewart and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Nature’s Bakery/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What has this final season been like for you, with everybody knowing it’ll be your last year in the car?
“Before the season started, we said our only goal was to go out and have fun. Anything else would be icing on the cake. It’s been fun but we’ve also been able to run really well. We aren’t going to change. We are going to keep having fun all the way to Homestead.”
In 2000, you won both Dover races. Did those wins feel different?
“With the long corners at Dover, I was doing something that was probably quite a bit different than the way everyone else drove their car. I think that was the first time we ever swept the spring and fall races at a racetrack. That was a pretty cool year to kind of feel like you figured something out.”
What was Dover like to race in an Indycar?
“I didn’t like it in an Indy car at all. It was like driving across a washboard. I remember the first race we ran there, the PI-dash breaking off in the front of the tub and laying in my lap. When you came in and did your pit stop, you have to reset the fuel on that gauge. I had to pick it up off my right leg, hold it with my left hand, hold the steering wheel with my right hand to keep it from turning while the guys were doing the pit stop, then use my other hand to reset the fuel gauge. It wasn’t my favorite track in an Indy car, by any means.”
Why is Dover so difficult?
“I think, when I started running Dover, it was quite a bit different than it is now. What I like about it now is that it seems we race all over the racetrack. When we started, you were pretty much stuck around the bottom. The winner was the guy who could get his car working around the bottom. Now, guys are moving around. The guys who are still fastest are still on the bottom but, if your car is a little bit off, you can move around and not be stuck in that one spot.”
Is “The Monster Mile” the most appropriately named racetrack in NASCAR?
“I think it is the most appropriate name. You win there and you feel like you’ve conquered a monster. That racetrack can be your best friend, or the track itself can be your worst enemy. When it’s going well and your car is driving well, it’s a blast. If your car isn’t right, even off a little bit, it’s a miserably long day there. That’s why it’s gratifying. That’s why, when you get that big trophy with that monster and they set your diecast car in his hand, you know you did something that week.”
What do you remember about your last win at Dover in 2013?
“I remember thinking that if someone had told me we were going to win, I would’ve told them they were crazy. We just didn’t have the car to win the race, but we had great pit strategy at the end. Our Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevy was solid, but we just never could get the track position to get in clean air. We changed only two tires on that last stop to get up front. The car felt a lot better up there and it didn’t seem like the guys who took four tires had a huge advantage taking off. When we noticed we were catching the leaders, we kind of got going on the bottom and made up even more time. It was just a big win for us and really gave us some momentum for the next few races.”
Dover’s surface is concrete. Do you have to alter your driving style when you race on concrete?
“I don’t think you drive it any differently but, because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would. There are seams in Dover’s surface and places where they’ve cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change and, every year when you go there, the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that’s constantly changing. But it’s one of those places where you really can’t change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It’s just a matter of finding the package that’s right for that racetrack. But, other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track – either the car is going to be tight or it’s going to be loose.”
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