The Racing Capital
of the World
June 06, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Tony Stewart, who has turned jousting with the media into an art form, strolled into the media center Sunday, June 2 at Dover Downs International Raceway and made a surprising announcement.
“God, as much as I hate to say it, it's good to be back in the media center,” said Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion and two-time Brickyard 400 winner from Columbus, Ind., who finally made it to Victory Lane for the first time this season.
Strange bedfellows – Stewart and the media.
He knows that if he doesn’t get asked into the media center, chances are he had a bad race. And no matter how much he loathes some questions, it comes with the territory of being a NASCAR winner. And no matter how much reporters bristle at Stewart’s sometimes sarcastic responses, the media needs Stewart because he is good copy and generates interest in the sport.
When George Steinbrenner was alive, Major League Baseball had more interest when his beloved New York Yankees were playing for the World Series. There is more interest in college football when Notre Dame is relevant, and the same can be said for a certain select group of NASCAR drivers who help move the needle when it comes to interest.
Stewart is one of those drivers, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Another driver in that category, Jimmie Johnson, continues to compete at a high level in 2013 and has a sizeable lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings heading into this weekend’s race at Pocono International Raceway.
Conversely, Stewart needed a win, and he needed it badly. He arrived in Dover 20th in the standings after a seventh-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. When a Cup driver is in that territory, they not only need to stay in the top 20 but also need to win a few races to challenge for one of the two Wild Card positions in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.
Nobody needed to remind Stewart of that at Dover. He led the final three laps for his 48th career Cup win.
“It’s big, and it definitely gives us some momentum,” Stewart said. “We got two weeks of momentum under our belts now at two totally different racetracks. That’s big, because momentum is huge in this sport. We still have a lot of work to do, but we won’t sit. I guarantee you none of these guys will tell you we’re exactly where we want to be right now. It’s a good reward for how hard they’ve been working to get that first win of the year.
“Now it’s trying to be more consistent and stay in the top-10 more and make our program better. It’s proof that no matter how bad it’s been this year, none of these guys have quit and given up, and I’m really proud of that fact.”
“(Dover) was a weekend that to me helps define what our program is about and what our organization's about. To go from where we were on Friday to having a bad day on Saturday to gaining on it but not having speed and then continuing to make changes and start with the car that we had, makes me proud, proud to be sitting here saying that I was very wrong and happy that I was wrong.
“But our guys have never given up. There's been a lot of dejected guys all year, and disappointed guys all year, but that's why we want them working at Stewart-Haas Racing, too, because the way we have been running, we want them to be disappointed and dejected. But nobody is walking around with their heads down. They are all trying to find a solution, and that's what makes days like today so special is when you have guys that just do not quit and they refuse to give up.”
One of Stewart’s favorite responses to the media when something is wrong with the team is, “If we knew what was wrong, we would fix it.”
So when told of that after his Dover victory, Stewart was quick to reply.
“You got that straight,” Stewart said. “I'll be honest. I'm not the smartest guy in the world. You guys have known that over the last 15 years. I've proven that time and time again. I'm just smart enough to know to hire good people. I honestly don't know. And the hard thing in this business and especially when you're struggling, it's hard. The further off-base you are, the harder it is to sit there and pinpoint a problem. It can be numerous problems, and it can be one problem. But the hard part is when you're far enough off-base, it's hard to break it down and diagnose those problems.
“It literally is a process, at least in my opinion, my view, it's a process of elimination. You eliminate a variable at a time until you finally narrow it down to a group of possibilities of what the problem is, and that's something that this group has done and been doing and we are still in the process of doing. You can have that mindset of that's what has to happen, but you have to have people that have the mindset to also execute that, and that's what we've got. We've got people that are very dedicated to making sure that no matter how bad it gets that they keep their heads focused in the same direction.”
There is so much emphasis on NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship that it begins to be the primary focus of the Cup teams and drivers as the sport enters the grueling summer months. Of course, there are some major highlights on the schedule, such as the annual trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Crown Royal Presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com on July 28. Stewart will attempt to win at the Brickyard for the third time in his career.
But he is also determined to make the Chase and realizes the next three months are vital to that quest. He doesn’t want to just make the Chase – he wants to have a chance to win the title.
“I've done this enough and been in the Chase enough that being in the Chase is not a novelty for me,” Stewart said. “I don't care about being in the Chase unless I have an opportunity to win the championship.
“It's a bigger deal to me to get our program turned around to where if we have the opportunity to get in the Chase that we have – our goal is not just to make the Chase. Our goal is to be championship contenders. So I would rather miss the Chase and the effort to be in the process of building our program to where we have an opportunity to not just be in the Chase, but also have an opportunity to win the Chase. Just making the Chase, that's not good enough. That will not change our focus. It won't change our direction with one win today.
“It's like we talk about in our meetings. We have to get up … everybody has to get on board the ship, and one guy has to steer the ship and we all have to go that direction. This will not change the direction of where we're aiming the ship right now. We want to get three cars competitive and get three cars running well again. So we realize that this could put the 14 team in contention and make the Chase. That's not good enough. I want to get this whole program turned around to where all three drivers have a feeling and an opportunity to go to the racetrack every week and feeling like they have an opportunity to go out and have a good result at the end of the day.”
Now it’s off to Pocono and the unique, triangle-shaped racetrack that was repaved last year. Stewart is a two-time winner at Pocono, most recently this race in 2009. Those two wins are included in his 11 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 28 previous starts.
He was third in this race last June and fifth in the August contest.
“It’s probably lost some grip, but that will make for some better racing,” Stewart said of the track surface. “You can see rubber getting into the racetrack, and that was with just a few laps around the track. To me, that’s very positive. The pace slowing down will make for better racing, for sure. The track surface really held up well over the winter. It didn’t shift a lot. It’s still smooth as glass.
“The thing about Pocono – it’s definitely unique. It’s got its own personality, but now that it’s been repaved and all the little nuances and tricks you learned when it was rougher and the tunnel turn was more aggressive – a lot of those things are gone. For us, we’re still learning it, or relearning it.”
Pocono races are also notorious for fuel-mileage contests, which mean the fastest driver and car don’t always win the race. It’s about stretching the amount of Sunoco gasoline in the fuel tank and how the cautions fall for a driver to make it to the end of the race on fumes.
“I’ve lost a lot more races like that than I’ve won,” Stewart said. “It was between Carl (Edwards) and me. We were the strongest two cars at the end of the race, and we were able to get the track position we needed. Our guys did a great job of getting us out of the pits in the lead, and that gave us the opportunity to make Carl push harder in the beginning to get the lead. Once he went into that fuel conservation mode, we had to follow suit. To be in a situation where your speed is dictated off the guy behind you and not off of what you can do, it’s a different style of racing. It’s hard.
“It’s just as hard, if not tougher, than trying to run 100 percent.”
If Stewart is successful in that effort at Pocono, then another meeting with the media awaits. And that is often as entertaining as the race itself.