KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Leading during the closing laps of a race can be both a thrilling and anxiety-inducing experience. Drivers go through their mental checklists, making sure to hit their marks, and doing what they can to protect the lead while the team relays such pertinent information as “white flag, next time by” and “checkered flag, this time”. It’s all music to the ears of the potential victor.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), has heard that music often. Forty-eight times, in fact, in the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in a career that now spans 16 years.
Stewart’s proficiency at closing the deal is evidenced by this fact: he has owned the lead when taking the white flag for all but two of his 48 career wins.
A win Saturday night in the Kentucky 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, however, would place the three-time Sprint Cup champion on the cusp of a rather unique white-flag moment.
For just the fourth time, Kentucky plays host to the Sprint Cup Series after joining the schedule in 2011. As such, it is one of only two tracks where Stewart is winless in Sprint Cup competition. The other is Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, the oldest speedway on the Sprint Cup schedule.
A win at Kentucky would not only be a first for Stewart, but also for primary sponsor Rush Truck Centers. A subsidiary of Rush Enterprises, Inc., Rush Truck Centers is the premier service solutions provider to the commercial vehicle industry and the United States’ largest network of truck and bus dealerships, representing industry-leading brands. With more than 100 vehicle centers strategically located in high-traffic areas or near major highways, Rush Truck Centers operate as one-stop centers offering an integrated approach to the needs of its customers.
Rush Truck Centers has been a partner of SHR’s since 2010, playing an integral role in getting the team’s racecars to and from the track. Kentucky is the third of five races where Rush Truck Centers is the primary sponsor of Stewart and the No. 14 team.
And just like Rush Truck Centers delivers for its customers, Stewart would like nothing more than to deliver a win to the San Antonio, Texas-based company. It would be a first for Rush Truck Centers and Stewart’s first win at Kentucky, leaving only venerable Darlington on his to-do list. Saturday night marks yet another white-flag moment for Stewart.
Up until 2012, Stewart was also winless at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but he eviscerated his 13-year victory draught at the 1.5-mile oval when he led three times for a race-high 127 laps en route to his 45th career Sprint Cup win. Ironically, Stewart’s considers Kentucky to be a bumpier version of Las Vegas. Given the No. 14 team’s oval-track performance in recent weeks, Stewart may be closer than ever to adding a Kentucky win to his already impressive resume.
Since NASCAR’s version of the All-Star break just over a month ago, Stewart and Co. have made steady progress, climbing from 22nd to 17th in the championship point standings. Fast cars in the last month, however, have been compromised by pit road penalties and race situations that have resulted in a series of finishes masking the overall effort.
Nonetheless, Stewart’s cars haven proven quick, and for a man in a rush – only 10 races remain before the cutoff for the 16-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – the black and yellow No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Chevrolet SS is the ideal ride for Stewart to have in the Bluegrass State.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
In the last month, you seem to have been far more consistent compared to where you were finishing earlier this season. Do you feel that progress is being made and that you’re headed in the right direction?
“Yeah, I think so. I value the consistency more than I do having a couple of top-three finishes and then running 20th the next week. I feel a lot better about where we’re going right now and the direction across the board. Our cars are getting more consistent across all four teams. That’s really what I’m basing how we are as a company right now, and I think it translates to each individual team.”
You’re from Columbus, Indiana. Does racing at Kentucky feel like a homecoming of sorts?
“I’m a Southern Indiana guy, so the track is not very far from where I grew up and where I currently live. It’s kind of a home track to us, and that’s kind of the feeling we have going into it. You always want to run well at your home tracks. Even though Indy has always been my home track in the past, now having Kentucky Speedway there, it’s as much home to me as Indy. We’re definitely looking forward to it. Plus, it’s an area that has deep racing roots. There are a lot of dirt-track racing roots around Kentucky.”
You have just three races under your belt at Kentucky. What makes it a challenging venue?
“It’s got a lot of bumps, so that makes it very challenging. Trying to figure out exactly where to be, where to try to get around some of the bumps, how to get through them better, how to get the car to go through them better – those are challenges that kind of make it fun, because it’s not just flat and easy to get around.”
Is it like any other track you go to on the Sprint Cup circuit?
“It’s a lot like Vegas for the most part, except for the banking and the bumps.”
How do you deal with the bumps at Kentucky?
“It’s really, really bumpy, so it’s a struggle to get the car to go through the bumps really well. It’s bumpier than anywhere that we go as far as mile-and-a-halves are concerned. But that’s what’s fun about it too is that it’s got character and makes us have to work on making it go through the bumps better.”
How much bumpier is Kentucky compared to other tracks?
“It’s definitely a challenge. It’s an added element that you have every week, but it’s more exaggerated at Kentucky than anywhere else we’ve been.”
Where are the bumps?
“I don’t know. I haven’t found a spot where there weren’t any bumps. You aren’t going to go around the bumps. They’re everywhere.”
Rush Truck Centers is back as a primary sponsor on your racecar. How did that relationship come about?
“We’ve been doing business with Rush Truck Centers for years. It’s an established relationship that has a much higher profile thanks to Rush Truck Centers becoming a primary sponsor with our team. Rush Truck Centers keeps our trucks and transporters up and running, and you could argue those are the most important parts of our race team. Without them, our cars never get to the racetrack. The employees of Rush Truck Centers are as detail-oriented as we are, and they play a critical role in the success of our race team.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine