KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Tony Stewart might not be the biggest fan of restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR, but there are few drivers like Stewart who can say they’ve led almost 1,000 laps or logged more than 30,000 miles in their careers on the 200-mph, high-banked tracks at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
In Sunday’s Alabama 500 at the 2.66-mile Talladega track, the three-time champion will drive the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Delvac Chevrolet in the 70th and final superspeedway restrictor-plate start of his 18-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career.
Out of championship contention with only five races left in his final season Stewart and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) crew will hold nothing back in their bid to get Stewart his 50th career victory, as well as secure a 13th-place finish in the 2016 standings.
“I still wish we were in the middle of the Chase but, since we aren’t, I guess the most positive thing is to go have fun these last five weeks and do everything we can to win a race, or as many as we can, before it’s over,” Stewart said. “We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
He enters the weekend after a 16th-place finish Sunday at Kansas Speedway. He’s winding down an impressive final season posting five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 23 races after missing the first eight events recovering from an off-road vehicle accident in January. Stewart also earned his 49th-career victory with a dramatic last-lap pass at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June.
Big gains or big losses are synonymous with restrictor-plate racing, which gets its name from the NASCAR-mandated “restrictor plates” in the engines to cap speeds. But a byproduct of “plate racing” is that the cars stay bunched in packs, often spawning multicar accidents.
Twice Stewart has enjoyed the spoils of success at Talladega, both times in 2008. The first came in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in April, when he won from the pole, leading five times for a race-high 81 laps in the 117-lap race. The second came in the Sprint Cup Series in October, when he outdueled Regan Smith for the win in a green-white-checkered finish.
Stewart has his own restrictor-plate strategy. More often than not, he has successfully worked the draft, flying under the proverbial radar and stalking the pace from behind the pack before ultimately positioning himself well for a win amid the almost inevitable last-lap chaos.
For his efforts, Stewart has scored six second-place finishes at Talladega, tying him with Buddy Baker for the most runner-up finishes at the track. Additionally, Stewart has nine top-five finishes, 14 top-10s and 328 laps led. He’s completed all but 182 of the 6,446 laps that have been run in his 34 Talladega starts since 1999 for a lap-completion rate of 97.2 percent. On the flip side, Stewart has a total of eight DNFs (Did Not Finish) at the track – six of which occurred in the closing laps.
Although there are plenty of restrictor-plate races that have gone sideways for Stewart, he’s also had his fair share go according to plan, especially when combining his results from Talladega’s sister track in Daytona, where Stewart has four points-paying Sprint Cup wins in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, three wins in the Budweiser Duel qualifying race, three victories in the non-points Sprint Unlimited, two IROC Series wins and, most recently in February 2013, he scored a record-tying seventh Xfinity Series victory, joining the late Dale Earnhardt.
Going into his final Sprint Cup restrictor-plate race, Stewart owns five wins, 18 top-fives and 28 top-10s on NASCAR’s current restrictor-plate tracks. He’s led 997 laps and logged 30,257.2 miles. He’d like to add to those numbers Sunday when the future Hall of Famer makes his final plate race start.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Delvac Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Has restrictor-plate racing changed in your career?
“What I remember about 1999 is the bumpers didn’t really line up really well. If you bumped into a guy, you had to be really careful about how you did it. Now, guys are just slamming into each other. It doesn’t matter if the bumpers line up. It’s like bumper cars at 198 mph in the race. The dynamic of it has changed quite a bit of how we do things and how you run there. I preach about it all the time, but blocking is now standard on a restrictor-plate track and I have never liked it. It’s what you have to do now. Everybody has to do it. You can’t blame somebody who blocks now. They are doing what they have to do to protect themselves. It’s just part of the game.”
What’s the difference between Talladega and Daytona?
“Talladega is wider and over a 10th-of-a-mile longer. We talk about Talladega and Daytona being a chess match, but Talladega truly is a chess match. You always had somewhere you can go. Four-wide is not uncommon there. It was nerve-wracking, but not uncommon. Three-wide at Daytona is pretty much what you are going to get at Daytona. Talladega is where I learned my style and what my concept of racing at restrictor-plate tracks were like. It was the first time having a teammate. What Bobby (Labonte) liked to do and what I liked to do at restrictor-plate tracks were different – where we thought we needed to be, when we needed to move, when we needed to pull out of line. But, Bobby said, ‘Listen, it’s all right if you have a different approach. You have to do what’s right for you and I have to do what I think is right.’ There weren’t a lot of times Bobby and I were able to hook up at the end of the race and go. But, we had a pretty good run there.”
How would you rate yourself as a restrictor-plate racer?
“Well, I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks. We’ve run in the top-two at Talladega a gazillion times. I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”
It seems that luck plays as much of a factor at Talladega and Daytona as everything else. Why is that?
“Someone described racing on the superspeedways as being a combination of a science project and the luck of a casino, and it’s exactly that way. You do everything in your power to take care of the science or technology side. You do everything you can to build the fastest car. If you don’t have the luck to go with it – even if you don’t have any drama with getting the car touched, nothing happens to the car – if you’re just in the wrong spot at the wrong time, it can take you out of the opportunity to take the best racecar in the field and win.”
When you’re in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the racecar?
“It depends on the circumstances. You can’t see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a really big tow, or you hit a pocket where it seems they’re getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? It’s trial and error but, at the same time, it’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, your car’s torn up. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”
How much translates from Daytona to Talladega?
“They’re different tracks with their own characteristics, but it’s plate racing and that really doesn’t change. Daytona has always been billed as being more of the handling track, but we’re still drafting and we’ll be in a pack where you’ve got cars on top of each other. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, and that’s the same whether we’re racing at Daytona or Talladega.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine