Indiana native Tony Stewart went winless during the first 26 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ regular season in 2011. Then he went and took five of the year’s final 10 races. In doing so, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing captured his third Sprint Cup championship; knocking off Jimmie Johnson.
Then he won a couple more courses in the Hoosier state: the inaugural Karting Classic at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Dec. 11, where he was one of six NASCAR drivers in a race with six IZOD IndyCar Series drivers. A few days later on Dec. 31, Stewart won again, this time at the Rumble in Fort Wayne (Ind.) USAC Midget feature on the 1/10-mile track inside the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
Now, Stewart kicks off his 2012 NASCAR season as the reigning Sprint Cup champion. That the 36-race marathon that is the Sprint Cup schedule begins at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway means Stewart could very well extend his winning streak, for the Columbus, Ind., native owns 16 total victories at Daytona.
A glaring omission from that impressive win tally, however, is a victory in the Daytona 500. In 13 attempts, Stewart is winless in the Great American Race. In fact, of the nine drivers who have won at least three Sprint Cup titles – Richard Petty (seven), Dale Earnhardt (seven), Jimmie Johnson (five), Jeff Gordon (four), David Pearson (three), Darrell Waltrip (three), Cale Yarborough (three), Lee Petty (three) and Stewart (three) – all but Stewart has won the Daytona 500.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Coming off your third championship season, particularly with the way you performed during the 10-race Chase, would you consider yourself the favorite to do it again this season?
“Honestly, I wouldn’t even worry about it at the beginning of the year. I think our season last year was proof that you’re throwing darts on a dart board right now if you’re trying to predict who’s going to win the championship this early. With technology changing as fast as it does, and the way our season went last year, 11 races from the end of the year I was like, ‘We’re wasting our time here.’ Then, all of a sudden, we got on a roll. So, I don’t think you can predict anybody right now. Every year it seems there are more teams and more drivers who are capable, and there are new guys during the year who pop up that are guys you would write off and wouldn’t look at as contenders. But there are more guys who get added to that category every year. So it just keeps getting bigger and better.”
With the kind of intensity you and the team displayed in winning the championship, do you think it’s possible to pick up where you left off after having had some time off?
“Honestly, I think it’s easy to keep that intensity up. The difference is, there are some variables that have changed. So you realize it’s a different focus than necessarily what we had at the end of the season last year. There is always something when you get three or four races from the end of the year, and you know you’ve got a shot at it, that there is a redirected energy. It’s like nothing else matters. Now, everybody’s hit the reset button. We’re all starting at zero again. You go down to Daytona and start at day one just like everybody else. You realize that intensity’s still there, but you realize there is a learning process that’s going to go on with learning a new crew chief. It’s just part of the process, but you still keep that focus as high as you can.”
Did you have much of a chance to get away and enjoy your offseason?
“I didn’t really do anything like that. There’s been a lot of work that’s gone on in the organization and I’ve pretty much stuck around just for moral support. When you hire a new crew chief and competition director, you don’t want to hire them and say, ‘I’m going on vacation. You guys can work. I’m going on vacation.’ So I felt like I needed to be at the shop a little more. I didn’t do anything other than just be there for moral support for them. I think that meant a lot to those guys and to the team, that we were there a lot.”
You didn’t get a chance to go off on vacation, but do you at least feel refreshed in any way, given all that is asked of a series champion at season’s end?
“NASCAR is pretty efficient now with the driver’s time. There are a lot of things that we have to do, but you do it whether you’re the champion or not. There aren’t extra responsibilities or obligations because you’re the champion. But NASCAR does a really good job every year of making things more efficient for us as drivers, too, and understanding the time that the sponsors and the teams need from us. I didn’t do a lot in the offseason. I didn’t take much time for myself, but I guess I felt so good about what we did at the end of the year that you want to spend that time with the team and do what you can to get ready for next year. Hopefully, it gives us the opportunity to do it again.”
Can you talk about what you like about Steve Addington and the decision to bring him on board as your crew chief?
“When we saw him at Joe Gibbs Racing and worked with him and Kyle (Busch) together, Steve’s one of those guys who has a lot of practical knowledge, having been in the sport a long time. But he’s one of those guys who I think is really easy to work with. I mean, in team meetings with him, he was easy to talk to. That communication was really easy. It wasn’t always easy to talk to some of the other crew chiefs we had. So, having him on board, I think that’s part of why we made that decision, because I felt like he’s a guy I could work with really easily. He’ll be my third crew chief, now. The first two guys I had were easy to work with. So I think we’ve been really lucky from that standpoint, to have guys we communicate well with and get along with. Steve just kind of is one of those guys who is a lot like Darian (Grubb, former crew chief). I think he may not have all the engineering background that Darian has, but I think he’s got the practical knowledge and is a better fit for me.”
Can you tell if it’ll be a relatively quick process in getting you and Addington up to speed and working well with each other?
“I don’t think you can tell until you get to the track. But, personality-wise, Steve and I get along really well, and it’s similar to where Darian (Grubb) and I started out. When I say it’s a little loose, it’s a question of what a little loose means to him. And Steve’s worked with different drivers, so he knows how to go through that process, too. So, it’s literally trying to figure out what that combination’s going to be like.”
Addington has joked that he feels like he has to win 10 races. Do you feel you need to temper his expectations?
“If we win 10 races, I think that ties us for the most in the modern era with Jeff Gordon in a single season, so it’s pretty ambitious to hope for. I like his attitude. I want him to sign a contract that guarantees that, now. But, that’s what we want to do. You want to go out and win races. I don’t think you have to temper anything. He’s not a rookie in this sport, and it’s not the first time he’s worked with a new driver. So we know what’s realistic out there.”
Are you surprised about the kind of confidence Danica Patrick seems to be bringing with her to the Daytona 500?
“Not after last year. After a rookie won it last year, why would you count yourself out? She’s a talented driver. Our cars were really fast at Daytona, so why not have that confidence? Even before I knew her, you could see the confidence she’s had from day one. Just watching what she did in IndyCar, and listening to her speak in her interviews, she knows she can drive a racecar. It’s a matter of how long it’s going to take to learn the Cup side of it and learn how to handle a heavier racecar. She was more confident being in the two-car pack pushing each other than I was. I’ve been doing it since we’ve had to do it. But she’s very confident. She is very good at analyzing what goes on on the racetrack and communicating that to her crew chief. So it should be fun to watch.”
Just how big would it be for Patrick to win the Daytona 500?
“It would be big for everybody. It would be big for her. It would be big for NASCAR. I mean, we haven’t had something that significant happen in quite some time. Obviously, having Trevor (Bayne) win last year was a significant moment for the sport. But I think we all know what it would mean if she won.”
It seems like a no-brainer bringing somebody like Danica into your system. But was it that easy of a decision?
“No, it was not. We went through the same process that we’ve looked at with other drivers. Obviously, she’s great at the marketing side, but she’s got talent behind the steering wheel. We would not have hired her if we didn’t think she could do a good job driving the racecars. That was first and foremost on my mind. Having a partner like Go Daddy that came with her is a luxury. I don’t care how good the sponsorship is, if the driver can’t drive, we’re not interested. We felt like the decision to add her to the program was made based on her driving ability, first.”
If there is such a thing as an “inner circle” among NASCAR drivers, do you feel Patrick is there, yet?
“I think the effort she’s put forth has shown everybody that this is where she wants to be. We haven’t seen that dedication from some of the other guys who have come in and ran a little bit and then left the series. I think the drivers respect that, and I think she’s come in with a great attitude. She’s very humble about realizing it’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of effort. It’s not going to be a scenario where you’re going to go out there and win right away. We hope she does, obviously, but the reality is it’s tough to run well right off the bat. It’s a big transition that she’s going to be going through. So I think she’s been very humble with that side of it, and I think that’s what the drivers and teams and crews respect.”
From a team owner’s perspective, what has it been like to watch this team grow as quickly as it has and achieve what it has?
“It’s amazing to me over the last three years to see where the organization went from on day one to where it’s at today. I’m really, really proud. But it’s guys like Matt Borland (vice president of competition). Matt has probably been one of the biggest keys to this team’s success. He’s been with the team from day one, and was there before it became Stewart-Haas. He’s probably made the transition much easier than I anticipated it being. He’s very good at assembling good people. We had Bobby Hutchens (former director of competition), who was great at doing that, also. And I think Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, current director of competition) is the same type of guy. A lot of people have respect for Greg and what we’re doing. A lot of people build on that success, and are bringing better people to us, and that’s how you make an organization better.”
Now that you’ve had some time to look back and think about your third championship, what kind of feelings does that bring?
“I’m very appreciative. I guess the question was, ‘How did it change my life?’ My life hasn’t changed. I’m still the guy who the day after was trying to figure out how to get ready for upcoming races, and to get ready for the next season. But to be part of something from a car ownership side and knowing we were able to be part of helping that organization grow and getting in this position, it’s a different feeling than you have from the driver’s side of winning a championship. It’s fun. I mean, winning never gets old. You never say, ‘I’ve won enough.’ All winning does is make you want to win more because you want that same feeling again. When you sit back and look at the category and look at the record books and look at the group that we’re in now, it’s a pretty humble feeling to know that we’re in pretty good company like that.”
With so much focus on your championship and Danica’s arrival in NASCAR, your teammate Ryan Newman, has sort of been flying below the radar. What are your thoughts about him?
“You know, if a couple of different circumstances didn’t happen at the end of the season, he easily could have won the championship just like we did. You look at his performance right before the Chase started and he was running really strong. He just had a couple of hiccups at the beginning of the Chase that got him behind. It just took the wind out of the guy’s sails. It’s easy for that to happen. You work all year to get in that position, and you feel like you’re at the top of your game and you feel like you have a couple things out of your control happen, and it’s easy to lose that momentum. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Ryan’s a guy we’ve got to look at to beat for the championship. If we get beat by Ryan, that would not be any shame to me.”
Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports
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