KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – “This is a story about control, my control. Control of what I say, control of what I do.”
That’s the opening monologue for the title track on pop icon Janet Jackson’s third album, “Control.” The independence-claiming anthem was released in 1986 and served as the vehicle for Jackson’s not-so subtle missive that she was taking charge of her life and career.
Although it was nearly 30 years ago when “Control” hit the airwaves, it’s possible Jackson was channeling her inner Tony Stewart.
Control is an instrument Stewart has successfully applied throughout his racing career, parlaying it into three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships and 48 career wins. And come Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, Stewart seeks to control his chance to earn a fourth series title by winning his first race of the season, his third at Sonoma and his eighth on a road course.
The 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course in California wine country has proven to be a strong venue for Stewart, as the driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing has a pole, two wins, three second-place finishes, five top-fives, nine top-10s and has led a total of 82 laps in 15 Sprint Cup starts.
Stewart relishes the opportunity to turn left and right, viewing road courses as driver’s tracks.
Success and failure are dependent on the driver’s ability to take charge of the car and the unique circumstances that go with road racing, rather than negotiating the aerodynamic-dependent features that regulate success on the intermediate ovals that comprise the majority of the Sprint Cup schedule. Road-course racing is about control, and from behind the wheel of his Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevy, Stewart controls the pedals, transmission and steering wheel with tenacity.
Between Sonoma and the Sprint Cup Series’ second road-course venue in Watkins Glen, New York, Stewart has made 29 career road-course starts, earning seven wins, 12 top-fives, 19 top-10s while leading a total of 307 laps.
And Stewart’s dexterity in road-course racing hasn’t been limited to NASCAR. Outside of the elite Sprint Cup Series, he has a road-course trophy in IROC, having won Round 3 of IROC XXX on the Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway road course en route to the series championship in 2006. He has also competed in the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours At Daytona five times, with a best finish of third in 2005.
With a road course in front of Stewart and four races behind him where he’s risen from 22nd to 16th in the championship standings, Sonoma serves as the perfect springboard for Stewart’s traditional summer surge. Of his 48 Sprint Cup wins, 23 have come in June, July and August. (Seven wins in June, nine wins in July and seven wins in August.)
Summer is right around the corner, and so is Stewart at Sonoma.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How much of a challenge is it to switch from oval racing to road-course racing?
“I love it out there and it’s something different than what we do every week, so it is a challenge. But it shows that you’re versatile if you can go out and win. Both of the road courses are very technical. Sonoma has a lot of character because of all the elevation changes. The surface is slick and that’s what makes that track so much fun. It makes you have to drive. There isn’t a spot on the racetrack where you get a break. You are always driving the car. The straightaways that do exist are very short. So again, it just makes you work the whole race.”
Does road-course racing show off a driver’s versatility?
“I think so. I’m not saying that if you don’t win at a road course you’re not a good driver, by any means. You just see drivers rise to the top there and you see drivers have great performances that ultimately end up defining them.”
You’ve had a tremendous amount of success at Sonoma. Why?
“I just like the road courses. I’ve always liked Sonoma. It’s really a driver’s track. It’s tough to make your car drive perfect all day. You can have a really good car, but it’s going to slide around and you’re going to struggle for grip, and that’s what makes it so fun. You have to do the work behind the steering wheel.”
You have a pair of Sonoma wins. Was the first win more enjoyable than the second?
“Anytime you win your first race at a particular track, it’s always a special moment. From day one, Sonoma has been one of those places where we’ve run really well, but we haven’t always had the best finishes. We’ve been in crashes that have put us out, or we’ve tried pit strategies that haven’t worked. For the most part though, at the end of the day, we’ve been one of the top-five guys as far as speed on the racetrack. That’s what makes that place fun. There are some drivers that can’t adapt to it and haven’t learned it. Then there are guys like myself that, from day one, have always really liked it and looked at the challenge of it as something really fun for us.”
What does it take to win at Sonoma?
“You’ve just got to have a good handling car. Aerodynamics are not the least bit important at Sonoma, which is great because it’s one of the few tracks that we go to that we don’t have to worry about aero balance or anything like that. It’s just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day and having good pit stops and pit strategy and staying out of trouble.
“A lot can happen at Sonoma. You’ve got to be patient all day. You get a lot of cautions there and a lot of guys end up beating and banging on each other. I mean, the cars look like they’ve been to a race at Martinsville because it’s a short road course. Save that car for the last 20 laps because that’s the critical time. Do what you have to do to get through the first 90 laps, but those last 20 are the ones when you really have to go, and you need your car to be in one piece to make it happen.”
Because road-course racing is such a different discipline, how do you approach it?
“I’ve just always liked it. I won a national championship racing go-karts on road courses, so the concept of what it took to win races on road courses wasn’t totally unknown to me, but driving cars with suspension, and definitely driving cars that you had to shift, that’s something that came relatively easy to me, and still comes easy to me as far as knowing how to synchronize the gears without having to use the help of the clutch. Even in the sports cars that I’ve driven with guys who have driven road courses all their life, I’ve gotten out of the car and the crew has torn the gearboxes apart and said that the dog rings in my transmission look better than when those guys are done with a transmission. There’s just something about the shifting side of it that’s been really natural to me, and it’s fun. I like having a different discipline to race on. I like having the opportunity to do something twice a year that we don’t get a shot at doing very often.”
How important is it that NASCAR has raced in Sonoma for more than 25 years?
“It’s got deep roots with NASCAR now and you just can’t imagine it not being on the schedule. I think all of the drivers and teams think of it that way. It’s a huge weekend. Teams really work hard on their road-course programs because of how challenging and difficult it is. I don’t think any of your full-time teams look at it as a weekend you have to get through to get on to the next thing. We’re at a point where teams put a lot of emphasis on the program. The track has really established itself as a unique race. It’s one that’s circled on the schedule, for sure.”
In all the years that Sonoma has hosted NASCAR, is there a certain moment that is most memorable to you?
“You know, there isn’t really one. Every time you go there, it’s fun. It’s a fun track, great area and it’s really a perfect place to go and enjoy a NASCAR weekend. It’s an unconventional NASCAR weekend because it is a road course, but it is one of the races I truly look forward to every year. It’s nice to get out of the box of what we do weekly and Sonoma is an awesome, awesome racetrack that has a lot of history. It’s very challenging and that’s why drivers like it.”
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