KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers see highs and lows throughout the course of a season. More often than not, the glory of the highs is found in shifting from the lows.
Much like the Tideway in England’s famed River Thames, where the tide rises and falls twice a day by up to 24 feet, Tony Stewart has experienced his share of tidal activity in the first five races of 2014. Finishes of 35th, 16th and 33rd to start the season have been offset by back-to-back top-fives, righting his ship as it sails upward in points from 32nd to 17th.
While Stewart contends it’s too soon to say the current has changed course, there is no denying that momentum has swayed in his favor. He plans to stay the course this weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway where he pilots the No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
Code 3 Associates (www.Code3Associates.org) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization specializing in animal rescue and recovery in disaster areas. The continued operation of Code 3 Associates relies totally on the generosity of donors and bravery of its responders. Increasing awareness of the organization’s mission is the reason for the partnership with SHR. Stewart knows delivering another strong run at Martinsville is the best way to deliver for Code 3 Associates.
Martinsville is a track where Stewart has excelled right from the very start. As a rookie in 1999, he scored his first career Sprint Cup pole at the .526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval in just his eighth career Sprint Cup start. Stewart finished 20th in his Martinsville debut, but soon proved his fast qualifying lap could translate to 500 fast laps. Stewart won the pole in September 2000 in his fourth visit to the track, and then led 179 laps en route to the first of his three Martinsville wins.
The most recent of those victories came in October 2011, which served as the springboard for Stewart’s third Sprint Cup championship.
After starting fourth, Stewart maintained a presence in the top-10 throughout the event and took advantage of a late-race restart, grabbing the lead from Jimmie Johnson and leading the final three laps to take the checkered flag.
In addition to the three wins and three poles, Stewart has nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. He has a lap completion rate of 96.3 percent and an average finish of 13.8. He’s led a total of 1,208 laps – third-most among all active Sprint Cup drivers – and has only one DNF (Did Not Finish) in 29 career starts.
While races at Martinsville tend to ebb and flow, Stewart is well-versed in what it takes to ride the tide to great success.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You come to Martinsville with back-to-back top-five finishes. What does this mean for you and SHR?
“I know I said this last week after qualifying, but I think it’s still too early to say. I’m very proud of our team to do what we’ve done the last two weeks. A top-five finish is always a good day’s work at Bristol, and then last week at California – even though we weren’t a top-five car all day, Chad (Johnston, crew chief) made some great calls and put us in position for the top-five. That’s the part that has me the most excited. Even though we have work to do, I’m not panicked about it because I know this is the group that can figure it out. It’s still early in the year and there’s a lot of racing to do.”
When you first came to Martinsville as a 27-year-old rookie back in 1999, what did you think of the track?
“I looked at it and thought, ‘I can’t believe they race stock cars here.’ It’s what I was used to from a Sprint Car and Midget standpoint. I had seen it on TV, but the first time you’re here, you think, ‘This is really small,’ and you realize how close quarters it is. Back then, the noses on the cars were slanted and the rear bumpers were really high, and if you touched somebody you turned them around easily. Now, our bumpers match up better. You don’t wreck somebody right off the bat. But if you hit them enough, you will.”
Martinsville is a very unique track. What’s it like to race there?
“Even on the bad days, it can be fun. And when you have a good day, it’s great. The grandfather clock you get for winning is one of the cooler trophies in our sport. Normally, 20-year-old kids don’t get too excited about grandfather clocks, but you realize it’s more than that at Martinsville. There’s a lot of pride and lot of history with this sport at Martinsville.
“One thing about Martinsville is there is no lack of excitement. I don’t care how flawlessly your day goes, you’re going to bump into somebody at some point, even on a perfect day. You put 43 cars on this half-mile track and it’s always going to be exciting. You will never have a race there where you don’t have some sort of drama during the day. I think every driver will say they will have some drama at some point. When you have 43 drivers with 43 dramatic moments, that’s a lot of action going on.”
You mention drama. Do drivers keep track of what they think is intentional and what isn’t?
“Everybody keeps score at Martinsville. The crew guys keep score of how many hot dogs they eat. Everybody in the cars keeps score of how many times they get run over and who it is. We definitely pay attention.”
Martinsville is a throwback venue. How do you see its place in the sport?
“I don’t care how old it gets or how far down the road it gets, it’s not going to be a track that I never see leaving the schedule. It’s got too much history, too much personality, and that’s what you see a lack of in some of these 2-mile and 1.5-mile tracks. At those places, you’re going to get strung out. You’re going to get away from people. But the fans really like to see us on top of each other. That’s what ensures the longevity of Martinsville – the action they’re going to see.”
Do you have a particular Martinsville memory that stands out?
“For a long time, we’d run really well there and hadn’t won a race, and then even after we’d won our first race, it took a long time to win our second. It’s a place where we’ve really run well at a lot. A lot of the races that were some of the most fun were races we didn’t win, but we ran in the top-five and had pretty good battles during the day. It’s a place where if you have a good driving racecar, it’s a blast to run, but if it’s off, it’s a long, long day. You don’t think a half-mile track is physically demanding, but if your car’s not driving well, you’re pretty tired at the end of the day.”
Code 3 Associates is on your car this week. Talk about who they are and what they do.
“We’re honored to have Code 3 Associates as a partner with Stewart-Haas Racing. Whenever there’s a disaster, everyone wants to help, and it’s nice to know there’s an organization out there that takes care of a sometimes overlooked but very important family member – your pet. Taking care of animals has always been important to me, and when we started our foundation, we made animal welfare a priority. To be able to promote the work of Code 3 Associates so that it can do even more work for people and their pets is very satisfying.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine