KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Tony Stewart is a fan of progressive rock, be it of the powerhouse band “Kansas” that was formed in Topeka in the early 1970s, to the rock that was unearthed at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City back in 2012 to make way for progressive banking.
Stewart, whose iPod is as eclectic as his racing resume, has earned 48 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins, and they’ve come at every type of track on the NASCAR schedule. Intermediate tracks. Short tracks. High-banked tracks. Flat tracks. Superspeedways. Road courses. Name it and Stewart has won on it, including the two tracks that also recently incorporated progressive banking – Homestead-Miami Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In fact, two of Stewart’s last four Sprint Cup victories have come at progressively-banked tracks – 2011 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and 2013 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Kansas joined the band of progressively-banked tracks in October 2012, with the D-shaped oval jettisoning its constant, 15 degrees of banking in its turns to progressive banking of 17 to 20 degrees. A new coat of asphalt covered the reconfigured surface, which has seen only three Sprint Cup races – October 2012, April 2013 and October 2013.
Stewart, however, has only participated in two of those races. He was absent from last October’s race as he recovered from a broken right leg sustained in a sprint car accident that forced him out of his signature No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for the final 15 races of the 2013 Sprint Cup season.
In his first race at Kansas’ reconfigured layout in October 2012, Stewart finished fifth. In his second and most recent race at Kansas in April 2013, he finished 21st. That’s the relevant history as far as Stewart is concerned, because his two wins (2006 and 2009), five top-fives, eight top-10s and 152 laps led in 13 previous Sprint Cup starts came on a surface that no longer exists.
It’s still a relatively new ballgame, especially for Stewart, who has one fewer race on the new pavement than the majority of his Sprint Cup counterparts.
New has been the theme for Stewart in 2014, as he came into the season with a new crew chief in Chad Johnston and new teammates in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Also new for Stewart, and for the rest of the Sprint Cup garage, were new rules in 2014 where the minimum ride height was eliminated, side skirts were reduced to a four-inch minimum ground clearance, and the rear spoiler height was increased to eight inches.
It all means there’s a lot of newness at Kansas, exemplified by the track’s new slot on the Sprint Cup schedule – Saturday night of Mother’s Day weekend.
The 5-hour Energy 400 is the same distance it’s always been – 267 laps around the 1.5-mile oval – but now it incorporates a level of difficulty not seen before as drivers and teams must build a chassis setup with the adjustability necessary to go from the expected 80-degree heat of the afternoon to the forecasted 50-degree nighttime temperature. Teams do this already at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, and the methodology utilized at those venues will now be applied to Kansas.
It’ll take some progressive thinking to find the proper setup to navigate Kansas’ progressive banking. But Stewart’s vast experience coupled with his ability to successfully navigate almost any kind of racing surface in nearly every kind of car in a career that has spanned more than three decades makes Kansas’ newness old hat for Stewart.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
This will be your third race at Kansas since the track was repaved. How much will the track have changed since you last raced there?
“It will have changed some just due to weather. It was so smooth when it was first paved – even the transitions were smooth. We knew going in that it would have a ton of grip and a ton of speed, but it was smoother than most highways you go down. The key is getting more rubber on the racetrack. The more rubber that gets transferred, the better the racing surface is. It will keep getting better the more laps we run.”
Stewart-Haas Racing had a lot of change in 2014 with the addition of a fourth team for Busch. How challenging has it been to manage that growth?
“Well, adding the fourth car was part of it, but the bigger part is that all of the cars are running a totally different package this year with set-ups with no ride-height rule and all that. Everything that we did last year is kind of out the window, and now you’re doing things that are totally different. You’re not just doing it for our Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy. You’re doing it for all four cars. So, there have been a lot of changes, but they go beyond the fourth team.”
How can you use your experience to your advantage when there are new wrinkles to a race venue, such as this weekend with Kansas being a night race?
“There’s something to be said for having experience in this series. You’re running longer races. In a 30-lap race, everybody just hangs it out and gets everything they can get. But in this series where we have races that are 400, 500 miles long, the guys with experience know when to push. They know when it matters. It’s like that every week because our races are so long. There are times you have to be patient and do the opposite of what you want to do. You let guys go because you know it’s the wrong part of the race to be fighting for a position. There’s nothing that replaces seat time, and guys that have experience at this level know how to put together an entire race, not just a segment.”
You’ve won a race on fuel mileage at Kansas and another with a fast car. Talk about the two wins.
“The race in 2006 was a battle between the driver and the crew chief. The crew chief is yelling at you every lap to save fuel, but you’re not slowing down enough and he knows it because he’s looking at the stopwatch. When you’ve got guys behind you, you know you don’t want to give those spots up in case they happen to make it on fuel. So, I tried to save as much fuel as I could and still hold guys off. We were able to take the chance because we had nothing to lose. Not being in the Chase that year gave us that opportunity to take the chance and go ahead and run for it.
“Then in 2009 we made a great call getting two (tires) and the guys had an awesome stop. That was really what it boiled down to. We got that track position at the end, and we had the luxury of being able to pick the inside or outside lane on the restart, and I kind of debated back-and-forth which side I needed to be on. But I kind of struggled when I was stuck on the bottom on restarts. So, I took a gamble and went to the top and got enough of a lead on Kasey (Kahne) to get down to the bottom that by the time we got to (turns) one and two, I was able to run my line. We got enough of a gap right off the bat that it gave me the flexibility to run my own line, run my own pace and let those guys have to worry about catching us.”
When you took the checkered flag in 2006 you were out of gas. What were your thoughts when you knew you had run out?
“When we were coming down the backstretch, I asked how many laps we had left and they said, ‘You’re coming to the white (flag).’ Then I saw the needle start bouncing and it wasn’t on zero, but it was down to three pounds and bouncing up and down. We came down the frontstretch and it started losing pressure when we went into turn one. Then it caught up for a second, but as soon as we came off turn two, it lost pressure immediately. It’s just important to get it kicked out of gear right away and just get down low on the racetrack and take the shortest distance around. We just coasted around and hoped we had enough of a lead to stay out front. Turned out we did.”
The Kansas race is the night before Mother’s Day. What kind of support has your mom given you during your racing career?
“My whole family supported me, basically. Mom was a little more reserved and a little more quiet about it than my father was. My father was kind of the ring leader. He was the one who made all the decisions on what we did and didn’t do. While she was a little bit reserved, she was, and still is, one of my biggest supporters.”
How would you describe your mom?
“She’s a pretty patient woman. Anyone that could actually raise me and not want to kill me or kick me out of the house has got to be a very patient person. That’s my mom. She’s a very patient lady with a great heart and she’s really good with people.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine