The Tony Stewart who streaked to a third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in 2011 appears back in 2012.
|Stewart garage interview at MIS
Photo – Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Stewart, who won a record five races in last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup to clinch the championship in an epic battle with Carl Edwards, is poised for another hot streak as the summer solstice begins. The driver of the No. 14 for Stewart-Haas Racing comes into Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at the road course in Sonoma, CA, with the momentum of consecutive podium finishes at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway.
After back-to-back 25th-place finishes in the races beforehand – May 27th at Charlotte Motor Speedway and June 3 at Dover International Speedway – Stewart has roared back to championship form with a third-place effort June 10 at Pocono and a second-place run last Sunday at Michigan.
Now Stewart comes to Sonoma, the first road-course stop on the Sprint Cup tour. The other is Watkins Glen International, which welcomes the Sprint Cup Series in mid-August.
Both tracks force drivers to turn left and right, and both have suited Stewart very well. Seven of his 46 career Sprint Cup victories have come on road courses – two at Sonoma and five at Watkins Glen.
“I love the two road courses. It’s nice because it kind of breaks up the monotony of the season,” says Stewart. “We do the same thing every week and it’s nice to have two road course races thrown in the mix that give us a chance to do something a little bit off-center for all of us. It’s kind of like the ‘Prelude’ with no dirt added, unless you drive off, which a lot of us do. We still get a dirt aspect in it, I guess.”
Stewart finds road courses fun. “I just like the road courses. I’ve always like 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.”
One could argue that Stewart is king of the road, for in addition to his seven wins, the three-time Sprint Cup champion has 11 top-twos, 18 top-tens and has led a total of 307 laps in 26 career road course starts. In fact, with only four finishes outside the top-15, Stewart’s average road-course finish is 9.3. At Sonoma alone, Stewart’s two wins – 2001 and 2005 – are augmented by one pole – 2002 – two second-place finishes, four top-fives and eight top-tens.
|No. 14 during practice at Sonoma June 22, 2012
Photo – Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Key to his Sonoma road course success, the three-time champion says, “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.”
Aerodynamics are the least of Tony Stewart’s concerns at Sonoma, but he also understands it takes the driver and his crew to be successful. “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,” said Stewart. “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.”
But another key factor to finishing up front has come in large part from Stewart starting up front. In his 26 road course races, Stewart has started within the first two rows ten times, and he has qualified in the top-ten 16 times.
For Stewart do these same keys to success work for NASCAR’s other road course – Watkins Glen International?
“The two tracks, while both road courses, are still pretty different,” says Stewart. “At Watkins Glen you don’t have to finesse the throttle near as much as you do at Sonoma. When you get the car turned, you can get in the gas and then stay in the gas. Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma. I think there are the same amounts of passing opportunities, but because of the speeds that you’re able to run a The Glen, brakes become a much bigger factor than I think they are at Sonoma. It’s pretty much a horsepower track. It just happens to be in the form of a road course. Sonoma has a lot less grip in the race track. You have to really be careful with the throttle there, and that puts more of the race in the driver’s hands. If anything, Sonoma is probably more technical than Watkins Glen because there’s hardly any time where you get a chance to rest. Your’e always either shifting or accelerating or braking or turning or doing something. At Watkins Glen, at least on the frontstretch and on the backstretch, there are three straightaways where you get a little bit of time to take a break. Watkins Glen seems to be more in the crew’s hands and the engine builder’s hands. Obviously, there’s still a job that I need to do in the race car, but I’m relying on the equipment and the crew a lot more at Watkins Glen.”
Proving true the racing adage of, “To finish first, you must first finish,” Stewart has recorded only one DNF – Did Not Finish – in all his road-course starts, which came in last year’s race at Sonoma. There, a dustup with Brian Vickers with less than 25 laps to go sent Stewart from a seemingly surefire second-place result to a career-worst 39th-place road-course finish.
It was a rare blemish on what has become an impressive road-course resume that isn’t limited to Sprint Cup. Outside of NASCAR’s elite series, Stewart scored a road-course win in IROC. He won Round 3 of IROC XXX at Daytona International Speedway’s road course en route to the series championship in 2006. Stewart has also competed in the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona five times, with a best finish of third in 2005.
|Stewart ready for practice at Sonoma 2012
Photo – Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Despite his disappointing finish in 2011, and with his racing resume in his back pocket, Stewart feels he has a competitive advantage over other Sprint Cup drivers at Sonoma with his road course expertise and performance.
“It’s definitely a place I feel like we’ve go the potential to win, even before we make a single lap,” says Stewart. “We seem to have taken to the road racing side of it fairly well and just have had good luck with it. I don’t know that there’s a secret to it, necessarily. I think a lot of it is that when we get to a road course, we look forward to being there. There are some drivers that don’t look forward to the road course races and we’re one of those teams that actually look forward to it. We like the change of pace and we get to do something different for a weekend. That’s something we always look forward to and it kind of gets us boosted up for the weekend.”
Tony’s approach for this weekend as well as his natural talent stand out as to why he is so successful on road courses.
“I’ve just always like 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,” Stewart said. “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. I take the same amount of pride that someone like Ron Fellows or Scott Pruett does when they come into a road course race. I take that same pride in running well that they do in these cars. I don’t look at it from the standpoint that it’s a negative weekend. I look at it as a positive, that it’s something we can enjoy and I feel like that gives us a leg up on most of the guys we race with at these tracks.”
So, if you’re looking for a candidate this weekend who embraces both left and right turns of Sonoma, look no further than Stewart.
Source – True Speed Communications for Stewart-Haas Racing Press Release