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Sprint Cup - Stewart Race Preview

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KANNAPOLIS, March 29, 2012: Dating back to September of last season, Tony Stewart has won seven of the last 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, including the series’ most recent race on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

These victories have come in many forms. Fuel mileage. Pit strategy. All-out domination. But perhaps the biggest game changer in this recent run was Stewart’s win last October at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing did what seemingly no one had been able to do in years – make a pass for the win from the outside lane. And Stewart did it dramatically, passing five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go.

“I don’t think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside, so I guess it was just determination,” said Stewart about his all-out, late-race pass. “To be honest, it’s really not the fact of beating Jimmie as much as it’s just hard to win in this series to begin with. You cherish these opportunities. You make sure that when you have the opportunity, you make the most of it.”

The win catapulted Stewart into championship contention with still three races remaining, and he let it be known that a third championship was in the offing, telling a live, national television audience that, “Carl Edwards had better be really worried. That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.”

Edwards, of course, was the point leader, a position he had held for much of the season. But three weeks later, there was a confetti-covered Stewart, with two more wins under his belt and a third Sprint Cup championship trophy thrust over his head following the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Stewart proved himself to be a modern-day Nostradamus, and it was his Martinsville win that was his quatrain.

The victory was Stewart’s third at the tight and fast .526-mile oval and it maintained Martinsville’s status as a playground for the elite, for Stewart is one of just five active drivers who have won at Martinsville since 2003, a span of 18 races.

Stewart scored the second of his two career Sprint Cup wins at Martinsville on April 2, 2006. It was a rare sight, for since Kurt Busch won at Martinsville in October 2002, the only other active Sprint Cup drivers to visit Martinsville’s victory lane have been Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. (Rusty Wallace, now retired and a NASCAR analyst for ESPN, scored his last Sprint Cup win at Martinsville on April 18, 2004.)

Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, turned Martinsville into Gordonville by sweeping the track’s two Sprint Cup races in 2003 and again in 2005. That run helped burnish Gordon’s legacy at the paperclip-shaped track, for he logged three previous Martinsville wins back in the late ‘90s.

Gordon’s domination, however, gave way to that of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Johnson, who won a record five straight championships between 2006 and 2010, gave a glimpse of his future stranglehold on Martinsville when he won on Oct. 24, 2004. Since then, Johnson has scored five more Martinsville wins, including three straight from October 2006 through October 2007, and then back-to-back triumphs in October 2008 and March 2009.

But just as Johnson usurped Gordon’s dominance at Martinsville, another young hotshot did the same, making sure Johnsonville was known only for sausage.

Virginia-native Denny Hamlin broke Johnson’s win streak when he took home one of Martinsville’s prized grandfather clocks after winning the March 2008 Sprint Cup race, which served as a precursor to his wins in October 2009, March 2010 and October 2010.

It wasn’t until last year’s spring race at Martinsville that an interloper named Harvick finally broke through to score a victory at Martinsville.

Now it’s Stewart who is back on top, and he already knows what it’s like to have the upper hand at Martinsville. In addition to his three wins, he has three poles and holds the track qualifying record of 19.306 seconds at 98.083 mph, set in October 2005. He also has seven top-threes, nine top-fives, 14 top-10s and has led a total of 1,208 laps in 26 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville. Stewart’s laps-led tally ranks him third among active drivers, behind only Gordon (3,094) and Johnson (1,677).

With a series-leading two wins just five races into this year’s 36-race marathon, Stewart returns to Martinsville with the same hot hand he had back in October. That Stewart’s win came on the eve of Halloween is appropriate, because it still strikes fear in his opponents. Consider that prior to this season, only six of Stewart’s 46 career wins came before June, and only four came prior to race No. 10. Yet so far in 2012, he’s two for five, all before April.

That Sunday’s race at Martinsville is the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 is also appropriate, for there could very well be 42 other drivers reaching for a Goody’s if Stewart continues to manhandle his Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy for another Sunday drive toward victory lane.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:

You were on fire during last year’s Chase for the Championship, and even with the spoils of winning the championship, the offseason, a new crew chief in Steve Addington and a new competition director in Greg Zipadelli, there’s been no letup as you’ve gone into 2012. How have you been able to sustain the momentum?

“As much as we were all celebrating the championship, it was so impressive to get back to the shop and see how hard everybody was already working for this year. It’s easy for teams, when they have success, to kind of slow down a little bit, take a breath, feel like they’re exactly where they need to be. That’s probably the one thing I was most excited about through this winter, was watching our guys, listening to their comments about how excited they were to have the success we had, but how they were looking forward to this year and trying to be able to duplicate that. It’s nice to end the year on a high note like we did, and still be able to come out of the box and carry that momentum with a new competition director and new crew chief. I think it shows the depth of our program and our group of guys back at our shop.”

You’ve had success at Martinsville and a period where you were always a threat to win. What’s that like?

“You can have it, for sure. It’s knowing that feel, it’s finding that combination that works, and the next time you come back to that track you know what that feel is like and you know what you’re looking for in practice for it to be good in the race. During the race, the track changes quite a bit, but you know when you kind of have that rhythm. You have the timing of what it was like, you just know what that feel is in the car that you’re looking for, not necessarily to be good in Happy Hour as much as to be good for the race. When you’ve had a good weekend, the next time you go back it’s just easier to try to go back and mimic that feel. That’s why when guys hit on something they’re normally good for a while until the package changes quite a bit, and then once that changes, you have to learn a different feel. Normally for a while you can have that, and different guys, if you look over the history, have kind of had runs at it. It seems like whether it’s a three- or four- or five-race period, guys get that feel of it and know what that tire likes, what the chassis combination likes at that time, and they kind of have that and they know how to adapt to it.”

What do you like about racing at Martinsville?

“It’s still that old short-track feel. That’s what I like. We run a lot of 1.5-mile tracks during the year and it’s the only place that races like this. We’ve got two half-mile tracks that we race on. This one’s quite a bit different than Bristol (Tenn.), and that’s what makes it fun. You can out-brake guys and you can run the outside if you get a shot. It’s racing the way we all grew up racing.”

Your win back in October at Martinsville was impressive, mainly because of how you made that late-race pass on the outside of Jimmie Johnson. How did you do it?

“I don’t think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside so, just determination. We didn’t have the best racecar that day, by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew to get it as good as they could get it. I was also the only guy who didn’t get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that.”

What was going through your mind on that final restart?

“To be honest, I was not excited about starting second there on the outside. I would’ve rather restarted third, but Jeff (Gordon) got to us and I hit the curb off of (turn) four before the restart. Jeff got underneath us going into (turn) one, and I ran that second lane and pulled two car lengths on him, and said, ‘Wow, this lane has a little bit more grip than I thought it had up there.’ The key was just getting into (turn) one beside him and not letting him run up the racetrack and holding him tight and letting myself have the opportunity to at least get through there.”

What was it like to get that win?

“There are two places where when you take the lead you absolutely know it. It’s Bristol and Martinsville. To pass Jimmie Johnson on the outside with two laps to go and to watch the crowd on the backstretch, then watch them on the frontstretch when we cleared him, you swear people are going to fall onto the racetrack. You feel that energy. You sense that. It’s not that you need extra motivation, but it’s cool to know you have that kind of support. It’s just that extra drive that gets you the rest of the way that last lap. It’s cool.”

During one point of that race, you were nearly lapped by Denny Hamlin and you had to fight him lap after lap while running the outside lane in order to stay on the lead lap. How much did that mid-race battle with Hamlin play into your victory ?

“I was reminded by my crew chief that morning, I was reminded by my spotter that morning, and I was reminded before the race by many crew members to not be so nice, which I know sounds odd of me. But that still meant racing guys with respect. You race these guys with respect and they’re going to race you back with respect.

“Could Jimmie (Johnson) just hauled it off in the corner, blown the corner to try to take us down? Absolutely. He could have done that to anybody. He didn’t do that to us. We have that level of respect.

“At one point in the race, I messed up and got underneath the ‘43’ car (A.J. Allmendinger), probably the big bonehead move of my race. I got underneath him in a spot where he was already coming down. I screwed up, he got sideways. I just checked up and let him have his spot back. I never saw anybody give anybody a spot back in a situation like that. It wasn’t his fault. I think later after that I got back by the ‘43’ car and instead of dumping me like the other guys were doing to each other, I think he knew I gave him that spot back because I knew I made a mistake. It just shows the respect that some guys did have for each other even though there was a lot of disrespect amongst a lot of guys out there.”

Does short-track racing, particularly around Martinsville’s tight confines, bring out the worst in drivers because there’s more opportunity?

“I used to be as guilty of it and bad as anybody about taking a cheap shot at guys early. But you realize that it’s not about the two guys driving the cars out there as much as there’s a bunch of crew guys who spend a lot of hours and put a lot of heart and soul into what we have as a product each week with these racecars and there’s a car owner who spends a lot of money. I think at times we all forget about that. You let a guy get his butt kicked once or twice, he’ll quit doing stupid stuff like that.”

Has becoming a car owner changed your outlook?

“Not necessarily. I mean, when Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., was here and Dale Jarrett, when I started, you just didn’t do that because that guy would come grab you, pull you out of the car at the end of the practice session, rip your head off talking to you about it, and intimidate you into understanding why you didn’t do that. Now there’s nothing. You can go yell at a guy. What does it accomplish? Does it make anybody understand what the other guy was thinking or saying? Two guys yell at each other, walk away, and nothing was different than before it happened. There’s nothing different to make these guys do anything other than what’s in their head.

“Even as a car owner now, I remember Joe Gibbs sitting me down and saying, ‘There’s other guys working on these things, too. You knock the nose off of it after a race because you’re mad at somebody, all of a sudden you created a lot more work for these guys.’ Maybe the crew guys need to get mad at their drivers when we do something stupid. Maybe the crew guys ought to pull the drivers back in the shop and make them fix it when they do it. I would be screwed because I can’t do it. I can barely put something that bolts together, together.”