KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Back in the day, Tony Stewart loved Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. He won his second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole at Bristol in just his 23rd Sprint Cup start. He won the 2001 night race in just his sixth visit to the .533-mile concrete oval. And in those first six races, Stewart led a total of 484 laps.
But in the six races after that lone Bristol win, Stewart’s best finish was 15th. He finally rebounded in 2005 when he finished third in the spring race and eighth in the night race, but that year of consistency, which coincidentally was the year Stewart secured the second of his three Sprint Cup championships, gave way to a feast-or-famine run at Bristol that has yet to subside.
On three occasions in the 13 races between 2006 and the Sprint Cup Series’ last visit to Bristol in March, Stewart dominated at Bristol by leading the most laps, but only had finishes of 12th (spring 2006), 35th (spring 2007) and 14th (spring 2008) to show for his efforts. In that same span, there have been only three top-10 finishes.
As Stewart’s fortunes at Bristol have changed, so too has Bristol. The bullring in Thunder Valley received a new concrete surface complete with variable banking in time for the 2007 night race, and in 2010, 160 feet of SAFER Barrier at the exits of turns two and four were added in time for the spring race, which created a different transition off the corners.
Another change greets drivers for Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race, as the banking in the upper groove of the racetrack has been reduced to the same degree as the middle of the track surface, effectively eliminating the third groove as a viable option. This will create tighter racing, the kind of which was prevalent when Stewart first found success at Bristol.
The retro feel of the new, new Bristol will hopefully suit Stewart and his No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet. It needs to, for Stewart comes into Bristol reeling a bit after a 32nd-place finish last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn and a 19th-place finish two weeks ago at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International that has dropped the three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion from sixth to ninth in points.
Stewart isn’t in danger of missing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, as his three wins already this season put him in a tie with fellow three-time race victors Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for the No. 1 seed in the Chase, which begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Nonetheless, all drivers want to start the Chase strong, and Stewart is no exception.
With a Bristol that’s gone retro, Stewart sees opportunity – the same opportunity he saw at Bristol more than a decade ago.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You tested on the redesigned surface at Bristol June 12-13 as part of a Goodyear Tire Test. How was it and what do you expect when you return for this weekend’s race?
“Not really sure. I’m not exactly sure 100 percent what tire they’re bringing back, but Goodyear ran through a lot of combinations trying to find something that would be a little bit different, a little bit better for the drivers. Pretty excited about the effort they’ve put forward and we’ll wait and see what tire they bring.”
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.”
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.”
What’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions the Bristol night race?
“It’s exciting. To me, that’s the best race of the year. It always has been. You can feel the excitement level around it, and anytime you’re racing at night, it’s cool. When the cars hit the ground, you can see the sparks. Bristol has always had that cool atmosphere because of how short it is and the way the grandstands are there, and then you do it at night on top of that, it’s just got a cool feel to it. And to put that many people in such a small area, at a track that is very unforgiving, provides a lot of people a lot of excitement.”
You’re now in your 14th Sprint Cup season and you’ve made 27 career Sprint Cup starts at Bristol. You’ve seen a lot of racing there. What stands out?
“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.”
Some of those “odds” have included spectacular last-lap scrapes where someone gets spun for the win. Are there any that you remember in particular?
“Watching Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte crash on the last couple of laps – a couple of those races have always stuck in my mind. They just prove you can have the fastest car there and still not win if one guy lays the bumper to you wrong.”
Danica Patrick will be making her fourth career Sprint Cup start, but her first at Bristol. What advice do you have for her?
“Go out and learn is exactly what I’ve told her. It’s not rocket science. The biggest thing is every lap you run in a car, the better you’re going to get and the more you’re going to learn. Even if you’re running fifth or 25th, you’re learning something. The goal of these races is to give her laps in the car and get her more time and experience. The good thing is she’s excited about it, and that’s the attitude you have to have going into it.”
TONY STEWART’S BRISTOL PERFORMANCE PROFILE
|2012||Food City 500||23||14||Running, 500/500||0||$140,810|
|2011||Jeff Byrd 500||13||19||Running, 500/500||0||$129,583|
|Irwin Tools Night Race||42||28||Running, 497/500||0||$137,828|
|2010||Food City 500||11||2||Running, 500/500||1||$161,323|
|Irwin Tools Night Race||4||27||Running, 494/500||1||$127,153|
|2009||×Food City 500||15||17||Running, 502/503||0||$101,648|
|Sharpie 500||30||33||Running, 489/500||0||$101,718|
|2008||×†Food City 500||6||14||Running, 506/506||267||$139,911|
|Sharpie 500||28||8||Running, 500/500||0||$152,261|
|2007||×Food City 500||4||35||Running, 479/504||257||$133,911|
|Sharpie 500||23||4||Running, 500/500||0||$178,386|
|2006||†Food City 500||1||12||Running, 500/500||245||$168,886|
|Sharpie 500||5||22||Running, 498/500||0||$140,761|
|2005||Food City 500||11||3||Running, 500/500||0||$151,986|
|Sharpie 500||17||8||Running, 500/500||0||$146,086|
|2004||Food City 500||12||24||Running, 498/500||25||$115,518|
|Sharpie 500||6||19||Running, 497/500||0||$121,528|
|2003||Food City 500||10||26||Accident, 487/500||0||$111,518|
|Sharpie 500||18||23||Running, 494/500||0||$119,138|
|2002||? Food City 500||13||15||Running, 500/500||74||$103,043|
|Sharpie 500||26||24||Running, 497/500||0||$103,788|
|2001||Food City 500||37||25||Running, 500/500||0||$64,820|
|Sharpie 500||18||1||Running, 500/500||71||$189,415|
|2000||Food City 500||19||42||Overheating, 73/500||0||$45,525|
|goracing.com 500||6||2||Running, 500/500||133||$92,540|
|1999||Food City 500||4||15||Running, 498/500||55||$48,505|
|Goody’s Headache Powder 500||1||5||Running, 500/500||225||$64,915|
× Race length extended due to green-white-checker finish.
† Qualifying canceled due to weather, starting position set via car owner points.
? Race was finished by Todd Bodine, who took over for Stewart in a relief role on lap 367.