KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Tony Stewart and Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway go way back. It’s an association that touches three decades from Stewart’s rookie season in 1999 through the 2000s to the current 2010s. And like most relationships, things were pretty good in the beginning. Actually, things were great.
After earning a respectable 15th-place finish in his very first Sprint Cup race at Bristol in April 1999, Stewart returned to the .533-mile oval in August for its notorious night race where he sat on the pole and led a race-high 225 laps en route to scoring a fifth-place finish. Two years later Stewart raced to his very first win in Thunder Valley, capturing the 2001 night race. Other than a 42nd-place finish that was the result of an overheating issue during the spring race of 2000, Stewart and Bristol had a pretty good run during those early years.
Somewhere along the way, however, things changed. In the 11 seasons since scoring that lone win, Stewart has been left longing after a race at Bristol. Since 2009 his best outing is a second-place finish, a result he scored in the spring of 2010. And while there have been some promising moments along the way – a front-row starting spot in March 2006 and being the lap leader in three straight spring races from 2006 to 2008 – results at Bristol have, for the most part, been less than headline worthy.
When a relationship reaches its breaking point, four painful words are typically uttered: “We need to talk.” And at that time it’s where one party or the other feebly tries to explain that, “It’s not you, it’s me.” For Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, it’s time to fish or cut bait.
As explained earlier, both Stewart and Bristol have gone through some changes in the last 15 years. Stewart has raced his way into the NASCAR history books, transitioning from an up-and-comer to a three-time Sprint Cup champion and future Hall-of-Famer, while also tacking on the title of multi-car team owner since finding Bristol success early in his career.
The track referred to as the “Last Great Coliseum” has gone through its fair share of change, too. There was its 2007 facelift where a new concrete surface was laid and variable banking was introduced. Then there was the addition of 160 feet of SAFER Barrier at the exits of turns two and four in 2010, which also created a different transition off the corners. And then there was yet another change to the banking prior to last year’s night race, where the top groove of the track was ground down to match the same degree of banking in the middle of the track. Even Joan Rivers would admit that Bristol has had a lot of work done.
As Stewart prepares for his 29th career Sprint Cup start Bristol, he does so with yet another change – the sixth-generation (Gen-6) car, which will have seen only three races prior to the Food City 500 Sunday at Bristol. But if anyone is suited for the challenge the new car presents at Bristol, it’s Stewart given his varied racing background and ability to quickly adapt.
And perhaps the newness of the Gen-6 car will allow Stewart to rekindle the spark that made him and Bristol such a hot item back in the day, and change the conversation from “We need to talk” to “We need you in victory lane.”
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You enjoyed success at Bristol early in your career, but the track has proven to be a challenge in recent years. Why?
“It’s a track where we’ve struggled. We’ve led a lot of laps there but we just don’t have the wins to show for it. It’s a track I definitely like. Everybody goes, ‘How can you like it when you’ve not had any success there for a while?’ To me, that’s just motivation. It gives us the ambition to be successful. We do have the new car there and that’s a question mark that’s the same for everyone. Hopefully, we’re the ones able to take advantage of it.”
Is Bristol going to be one of the bigger question marks for the Gen-6 car because of how different it is from the majority of tracks?
“The new car is a challenge everywhere. We’ve been to a superspeedway, a flat one-mile track and an intermediate track. None of those are remotely close to Bristol. There are a lot of variables and we don’t really have any data, so to say how the car will do at this point is all speculation, particularly at a place like Bristol.”
What do you enjoy most about racing at Bristol?
“I’ve always liked that the crowd is right there at the edge of the track – all the way around it. You can just feel the excitement from the fans. The fans that go to Bristol are passionate about racing. And whether they like you or hate you, they love their racing at Bristol. I’d say the fans are the best part of Bristol. It’s just a cool place and a cool atmosphere, and it’s because of the fans.”
Can you summarize your history at Bristol?
“Bristol is one of those places where you’ve got to have everything kind of go your way. If you have one hiccup, it’s hard to recover from it. We’ve only won one race there and we’ve kind of been all over the board. It’s been feast or famine for us. It’s like if you have one problem in the first half of the race, it’s hard to recover from it. It makes for a very long day. We’ve had more long days than good days.”
How miserable is it when you get several laps down at a track like Bristol?
“It’s a place where it’s hard to have a good day. There are so many variables that can go wrong at Bristol versus other tracks. If you have that one bad incident that gets you in the back, it’s hard to recover from that. There are guys who have done it and do a good job at it, but you have to have a great racecar to be able to recover from something bad, especially if you get laps down. It’s like going from the bottom of the mountain and climbing and climbing and not getting anywhere. You fight and fight and fight and at the end of the day you’re right where you were when you had your problem.”
You will be making your 29th career Sprint Cup start at Bristol. What stands out during your years of racing at Bristol?
“It’s a hard race to win. You look at guys like Rusty Wallace who have had so much success and won so many races there, it shows you how good you have to be to win and win there consistently. It only takes one minor incident to screw up your day. You would think being a short-track race that if you have a great car you can get there, but normally one small mistake will take that opportunity away from you. Seems like you have better odds of something happening that keeps from you winning than you do of actually winning.”
With Bristol being the first short track race of the season, what are your expectations?
“I think the one thing Bristol does is reset all of the grudges from the short tracks. I think guys forget about someone who may have given them fits last year at Bristol or Martinsville. I think everyone starts at square one. It’s nice to start with our first short track at Bristol. It’s something we all look forward to because it’s a one-of-a-kind racetrack. One of my favorite trophies is my Bristol trophy from the win in 2001. I keep asking myself why I only have one of them. It’s just a hard race to win. When guys win there, they don’t just stand on the car and go, ‘Whoo.” They usually scream when they get out of the car because it’s such a hard place to win.”