Running The Table
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – When Tony Stewart comes to Las Vegas, he comes to win. The difference between Stewart and most others who come to Sin City is that Stewart actually emerges victorious, be it on the racetrack or on the tables of the MGM Grand.
Stewart is a savvy poker player, and that works well for him behind the wheel of a racecar too. The driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has 48 career wins, and among that tally is a 2012 victory at Las Vegas.
Stewart started seventh in the 267-lap race, but quickly moved toward the front of the field. He took the lead for the first time on lap 134 as he slipped past four-time Las Vegas race-winner Jimmie Johnson. Track position, however, was everything, and when Stewart found himself third on a lap-234 restart, he made a daring three-wide pass on the frontstretch to retake the lead for the final time. However, holding that lead proved challenging, as three separate caution periods allowed his competitors, notably Johnson, to mount a charge against Stewart. Each time Stewart held him off, and when the checkered flag waved, Stewart had a .461 of a second margin of victory. It was the 13th time Stewart and Johnson finished 1-2, with Johnson taking seven victories and Stewart holding six.
The victory, which came in Stewart’s 14th Sprint Cup start at the track, put a spotlight on Stewart’s prowess at Las Vegas. His stat line reads: one win, four top-threes, six top-fives, nine top-10s and 482 laps led in 15 Sprint Cup starts.
But winning on Las Vegas’ 1.5-mile oval isn’t the only place where Stewart has run the table. The versatile driver has two other victories on speedway property – at the Las Vegas Bullring and at The Dirt Track. The first of Stewart’s Las Vegas wins came in November 2002 when he swept the USAC Sprint/Midget doubleheader at the Las Vegas Bullring. It was the first single night USAC sweep for Stewart on pavement. The second came in November 2010 when Stewart won the preliminary round of the inaugural Las Vegas Sprint Car Nationals at The Dirt Track. It was Stewart’s first American Sprint Car Series (ASCS) victory in only his second ASCS start.
Those are victories Stewart the driver has earned. Stewart the car owner has even more wins, as his dual-threat World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series team of 20-time champion Steve Kinser and five-time champion Donny Schatz has been prolific at The Dirt Track.
The Outlaws first competed at the facility to close the 1996 season and have contested 47 nights of action. Twenty-nine of those races have been full point programs and Schatz is the winningest driver at the track with seven A-Feature wins. Last March, Schatz led the final 20 laps of the main event to score the opening-night victory. The following night, he started on the pole and led seven laps before a flat left-front tire derailed his shot at win number eight. Kinser is a four-time A-Feature winner and has three preliminary feature wins, with his most recent victory coming in March 2011. Both drivers will compete Wednesday and Thursday night in the leadup to the marquee NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday.
It’s there where Las Vegas provides another opportunity for Stewart to win, and in a Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet honed in the wind tunnel, Stewart remains a smart bet.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What did it mean to finally get that win at Las Vegas, particularly after coming so close on several occasions?
“I was so glad to finally win one at Las Vegas. We were so close in 2011 and had a dominant car. That’s a race we should’ve won. Winning in this series is hard enough as it is, and when you have a race where you’re able to do pretty much anything you want but not close the deal, that’s hard. So to finally win absolutely felt great. I don’t think we necessarily had the dominant car, but we had the car that took off the best on the restarts, and we had quite a few there at the end. I think we were hands down the strongest car on restarts of getting to turn one from the restart point, and all the technology Mobil 1 brings to the table certainly helped us with that.”
How tough was it to hold off everyone during all of those restarts at the end of the race?
“It was nerve wracking at the end, for sure. Every time the caution came out, you cringed knowing you were giving them another opportunity to take a shot. You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ The other is that every time the caution came out, you knew there was another heat cycle on the tires. But our car was so strong on restarts, we could get to the start/finish line and get to turn one so good – that was a big key in being able to stay out front. We may have been a little bit weaker than everyone behind us during those first three laps after a restart, but we’d break even during the next three laps. And after six or seven laps, we were able to pull away. It was just a great win for us.”
Las Vegas is obviously much different than Phoenix, where you raced last week, but track position and, specifically, being up front and out of traffic, seems to be incredibly important. Is that accurate?
“As time goes on, the sport evolves, technology gets closer and closer, the rules get closer and closer, but the one variable that stays the same is air. If you can get out front and get in clean air, it’s always going to be an advantage. It’s been that way in Formula 1, IndyCar, sports car racing. It’s even big in the World of Outlaws. It’s not just in the Sprint Cup Series. It’s everywhere you find that because the technology has gotten so close and the cars have gotten so close that it’s little differences like that that make a huge difference on the racetrack. Do I think it’s going to be that way everywhere? Absolutely not. The tracks where the tires fall off more, it’s not as critical because it seems like you move around more. The wider the track gets because of tire wear and the guys can offset themselves, the less the air becomes a factor.”
What is the key to being successful at Las Vegas?
“You know, there’s really no key to it. It’s just like anywhere else you go. You just have to have a well-balanced car. It seems like track position is really, really key there, but as long as you can get your car driving well and stay ahead of it – it seems like as the day changes, or the longer the day goes, the more the track changes and the more you have to stay up with it. You just can’t have any mistakes there because you cannot afford to lose the track position, and you have to be able to stay up with the changing track conditions as the day goes on.”
What is your outlook for this weekend’s race at Las Vegas?
“It’s no different at Las Vegas than anywhere else. You have to get the car to rotate through the corner, but still stay tight enough on entry and exit. There’s no unique challenges there. The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps. Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth we can really fine-tune the attitude of our Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevy.”
Your World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series teams race Wednesday and Thursday night at The Dirt Track. It’s not often when the schedules of your open-wheel teams coincide with your Sprint Cup schedule. Are you looking forward to a busy week as an owner and a driver?
“Oh, yeah. It’s really a cool weekend because we get to watch my open-wheel teams run, and then I get to play the rest of the weekend. So I’m excited about that. That’s what makes going to Las Vegas so much fun is that we do get to see our other programs running.”
Which was the bigger transition – Sprint Car driver to NASCAR driver or Sprint Car team owner to NASCAR team owner?
“Definitely Sprint Cup team owner to NASCAR team owner. When you’re a driver, it’s you in a car. That’s all you’re trying to figure out. When you’re a team owner, that’s a different deal, but so is owning an Outlaws team compared to a NASCAR team. With the World of Outlaws team, you only have three guys working on the car versus the 270 guys that we have with four Sprint Cup teams at Stewart-Haas. Managing people and the resources that go with that is the biggest difference.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine