KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Change is inevitable. It can happen within the blink of an eye, or over the course of some unspecified length of time. Just ask Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.
One year ago, Stewart was in a slugfest with Carl Edwards for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Stewart came into the November race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth riding a wave of momentum after winning the prior weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Edwards, who entered Texas with an eight-point advantage over Stewart, saw Texas as his opportunity to put some distance between himself and the surging Stewart, who had come from seventh in points after Round No. 4 of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup to second in points after winning Round No. 7 at Martinsville.
Edwards’ opportunity was stiff-armed by Stewart, who led seven times for a race-high 173 laps en route to a 1.092-second margin of victory over Edwards. And Stewart’s average speed of 152.705 mph made for what was then the fastest Sprint Cup race in Texas Motor Speedway history. The performance moved Stewart to within three points of Edwards’ lead with just two races remaining, setting the stage for the most epic championship battle in NASCAR history, which Stewart went on to win, adding to the titles he earned in 2002 and 2005.
A year later, Stewart finds himself 10th in the championship standings, 71 points out of the top spot. With three races remaining, it’s still mathematically possible for Stewart to make up the distance, but not practical. Stewart is all too familiar with the numerous circumstances that would have to fall his way in order to secure a fourth Sprint Cup championship.
Despite not contending for the 2012 title, there is still a lot on the line, and with three races to go, a top-five points finish sounds better than a top-10 points finish. While Stewart currently sits 10th, he’s a mere 22 points out of fifth.
Stewart and the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 team may indeed be championship longshots, but when it comes to competing at Texas’ 1.5-mile oval, Stewart’s list of accomplishments is as long as the swath of asphalt Interstate 20 cuts across the Lone Star State.
Prior to winning last year’s AAA Texas 500, Stewart had visited the track’s victory lane in 2006. He had just missed making the Chase field that season, and although there wasn’t a championship at stake throughout the 10-race playoff, there was a series of race trophies for the taking, and take is what Stewart did. The Columbus, Ind., native won five races in 2006, including three in the Chase – the last of which was the fall race at Texas, where Stewart took to heart the saying that everything is bigger in Texas, as he trounced the field by leading eight times for a race-high 278 laps.
In addition to a pair of wins, Stewart has a pole, five top-fives, 11 top-10s and has led a total of 727 laps in his 21 career Sprint Cup starts at Texas. Stewart is no slouch in the statistical data department either, ranking in the top-five in just about every performance category. In the last 14 Sprint Cup races at Texas, Stewart has been the fastest driver late in a run (171.064 mph), has the second-best average running position (9.5), the second-most laps led (712) and has the third-best driver rating (102.5).
Also worth noting is that Stewart’s affinity for Texas isn’t limited to Sprint Cup. The three-time champ has found success outside of NASCAR. He secured an IROC win in April 2006, and in three IZOD IndyCar Series starts, Stewart led from the pole twice en route to racking up 208 of a possible 624 laps led (33.4 percent).
While a championship may be out of reach for Stewart, there is still plenty on the line for the Office Depot/Mobil 1 team. Namely, there are races to be won and point positions to gain, something Stewart has shown a penchant for at Texas.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
With a pole, two wins, five top-fives and 11 top-10s in 21 career Sprint Cup starts at Texas, how comfortable are you there?
“I’ve always liked Texas. I’ve been there clear back in my Indy car days in ’96. The fans in Texas and the people that come to Texas Motor Speedway are really appreciative of the drivers and the teams. They’re just really passionate about their racing. They have a great promoter with Eddie Gossage out there. It’s just a fun track, it’s a fun weekend, and it’s a place where we run really, really run fast. It’s a fast track. That makes it one on the schedule that you look forward to because you know you’re going to get to let your legs stretch out, so to speak, and run some quick lap times.”
What is it, specifically, that makes you so comfortable at Texas?
“You have to be comfortable or you’re not going to go fast. The more comfortable I am, the faster we go. This track, the grooves have moved around, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve seen the track get wider and it’s made it to where you can move around on the racetrack and where you can run the top side or the bottom side. It’s nice from a driver’s perspective to be able to have that flexibility behind the steering wheel, knowing that if your car’s not driving exactly the way you want it to, you can move around the racetrack and find a spot the car likes better.
“Any time you put more seasons on a racetrack, the better it gets because it seems like the pavement wears out on the bottom and it makes it to where you can run the top and be fast and you can run the bottom and be fast. It makes the whole racetrack, speed-wise, about the same, versus when they pave a racetrack and the only groove is right on the bottom. The fastest way is the shortest way because it all has the same amount of grip, so the shorter distance is faster. Every year we come here, I think the racing just gets better and better, as far as being able to move around on the racetrack and guys not having to just follow each other and get stuck behind each other. You can actually pass. You can race. You can get away from guys if your car’s fast.”
In your last 14 races at Texas, you’ve earned a top-five rating in several loop data statistics including driver rating, average running position, laps led and laps in the top-15, to name a few. How have you been able to adapt to Texas’ layout?
“I’ve found that you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy who misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn’t make a mistake and you’ve got a little better car than they do, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track’s a little wider, so you have more room to get a run on a guy. But, as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car’s handling will become more important. And, when a guy makes a mistake, you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up.”
A lot of drivers talk about turn two at Texas, where it feels like the banking falls out from underneath them. Can you describe that sensation?
“It does. The entry and exit of these corners, they’re very abrupt as far as the banking. When you turn in the corner, it’s very abrupt getting in and falls off very quickly. The reason for that, when they built Texas Motor Speedway, they intended to have the Indy cars race on the apron. That’s why the apron is so wide at Texas. The Indy cars were not originally meant to run on the banking. That’s why the banking on the entry of the corner and exit falls off so fast, so the cars could come from the straightaway from the apron and back up with a smooth transition from the bottom. It makes it a different challenge than what we have at Charlotte or Atlanta because of that. It does make it a lot more challenging to get your car set up for it. You can’t relax on the entry and you can’t relax on the exit of the corner. A lot of times, it’s hard to get your car secure on the entry because you don’t have that banking to hold it. Once you get in the corner, it seems like it’s all right. Same thing happens on the exit. Turn two is the tighter of the two exits of the racetrack. You’re still trying to finish the corner there and you have to keep tugging on the steering wheel and, at the same time, make sure you don’t lose the back (of the car). It definitely falls out from under you. When it does, you have to make sure your car is tight enough to make it through that transition.”
The championship seems to have come down to just a handful of drivers with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski leading the way. You’re currently 10th in points with three races to go. How far up the standings can you climb before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
“We still have three races we can try to win here. That’s what I try to do every week is win, so that’s not going to change whether we have a reality of winning the championship or not. It’s still about going out and doing the best you can every race. All you can do is keep your fingers crossed that things go your way, and when the season is over, we’ll see where we’re at.”
TONY STEWART’S TEXAS PERFORMANCE PROFILE
|2012||Samsung Mobile 500||29||24||Running, 332/334||0||$154,305|
|2011||Samsung Mobile 500||26||12||Running, 334/334||12||$168,308|
|AAA Texas 500||5||1||Running, 334/334||173||$484,783|
|2010||Samsung Mobile 500||1||32||Accident, 317/334||74||$152,748|
|AAA Texas 500||11||11||Running, 334/334||0||$148,198|
|2009||Samsung 500||7||4||Running, 334/334||16||$219,146|
|Dickies 500||4||6||Running, 334/334||0||$181,098|
|2008||×Samsung 500||24||7||Running, 339/339||0||$206,841|
|Dickies 500||8||16||Running, 334/334||0||$149,811|
|2007||†Samsung 500||9||25||Running, 332/334||0||$146,861|
|Dickies 500||15||11||Running, 334/334||0||$159,361|
|2006||Samsung/RadioShack 500||40||3||Running, 334/334||99||$286,386|
|×Dickies 500||8||1||Running, 339/339||278||$521,361|
|2005||Samsung/RadioShack 500||10||31||Engine, 296/334||45||$131,311|
|Dickies 500||16||6||Running, 334/334||15||$190,486|
|2004||Samsung/RadioShack 500||17||8||Running, 334/334||0||$156,453|
|2003||Samsung/RadioShack 500||22||34||Engine, 293/334||0||$113,728|
|2002||Samsung/RadioShack 500||29||5||Running, 334/334||15||$168,053|
|2001||Harrah’s 500||41||23||Running, 331/334||0||$82,400|
|2000||DirecTV 500||38||9||Running, 334/334||0||$99,225|
|1999||Primestar 500||19||6||Running, 334/334||0||$107,315|
× Race length extended due to green-white-checkered finish.
† Qualifying canceled due to weather, starting position set via car owner points.