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Sprint Cup - Stewart Daytona Preview

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KANNAPOLIS, Jul. 6, 2012: Tony Stewart has been racing at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway since February 1996 when he qualified a Pontiac for car owner Harry Ranier in the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Since then, Stewart has competed on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval 70 times and on its 3.56-mile road course nine times (once in IROC and eight times in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series). On 17 of those occasions, Stewart has emerged the victor.

Sixteen of those wins have come on the oval – nine in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (three point-paying and six non-point-paying), six in the Nationwide Series and one in IROC. The lone road course win came in 2006 when Stewart won Round 3 of IROC XXX – the last time the now defunct series ran on Daytona’s road course.

Stewart earned all three of his point-paying Sprint Cup victories in the Coke Zero 400, as he took the checkered flag for the 400-miler in 2005, 2006 and 2009.

Until Stewart won at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in October 2008, his July wins at Daytona were his only restrictor-plate victories, as the 2.66-mile Talladega oval is the sister track to Daytona.

Yet he scored all those wins in impressive fashion. In the July 2005 race at Daytona, Stewart won the pole and led all but nine of the race’s 160 laps (94.4 percent). In the July 2006 race at Daytona, Stewart started second and led six times for a race-high 86 laps (53.8 percent). In the October 2008 race at Talladega, Stewart led four times for a race-high 24 laps (12.6 percent). And in the July 2009 race at Daytona, Stewart again started from the pole and led nine times for a race-high 86 laps (53.7 percent).

However, Stewart’s prowess in restrictor-plate racing should not be measured in wins alone, for judging the driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/ Office Depot Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing only by his victories would be a disservice to the three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champ.

Take the 2005 and 2006 seasons, where Stewart dominated the restrictor-plate races but only had his two Coke Zero 400 victories to show for his efforts.

Of the 747 laps available in the four restrictor-plate races run in 2005 – 203 laps in the Daytona 500, 194 laps at Talladega in May, 160 laps at Daytona in July and 190 laps at Talladega in October – Stewart led 325 of those laps (43.5 percent). And in those four races, Stewart finished seventh, second, first and second, respectively, to log an average finish of third.

And of the 739 laps available in the four restrictor-plate races run in 2006 – 203 laps in the Daytona 500, 188 laps at Talladega in April, 160 laps at Daytona in July and 188 laps at Talladega in October – Stewart led 118 of those laps (16 percent). And in those four races, Stewart finished fifth, second, first and 22nd, respectively, to log an average finish of seventh.

With an impressive track record at Daytona, as exemplified by the most recent Daytona trophy he picked up for winning the non-points Gatorade Duel race in February, Stewart is ready to get back to his dominating ways. With a Chevrolet made slick through countless hours in the wind tunnel and a Hendrick engine powering it through Florida’s trademark humidity, Stewart is zeroed in on scoring another win in this year’s Coke Zero 400.

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

How would you rate yourself as a restrictor-plate racer?

“Well, I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks, especially Daytona. I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”

As a driver, how much input do you have in making the car go fast at Daytona?

“The race situation is a lot different from practice. You tend to have a much larger pack of cars and that makes a really big difference. But you’re still able to figure out what your car likes and dislikes in the draft during practice. It may not be exactly what you’ll experience in the race, but it’s the closest thing to it. Basically, it gives you an idea of what your car is capable of and where you need to be to make the moves you want.”

When you’re in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the racecar?

“It depends on the circumstances. You can’t see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a real big tow or you hit a pocket where it seems they’re getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? That’s why so many guys will stay out for so long in practice. It’s trial and error, but at the same time, it’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, the car’s torn up for the race. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”

When you made your first Sprint Cup start back on Feb. 14, 1999, did you envision that you would win championships and contend for wins?

“No, I was just happy to be here. You dream of it, but I’m not sure when you start that you say, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ and you can predict that’s what’s going to happen. There are so many talented drivers and teams in this series that you can’t start in this series and expect to have those kinds of results. I think if you are, you’re being kind of foolish and being more ambitious than realistic. We’ve been really lucky to be with really good people for 14 years now in this series, and that’s what’s gotten us where we are.”

Back in the day, restrictor-plate racing meant racing against Dale Earnhardt, at least if you were racing for the win. Do you have any special memories from your time racing against him?

“You just always knew that, if he was behind you, it wasn’t going to be easy keeping him behind you. There was a reason that he got the nickname ‘Intimidator.’ When you looked in the mirror, you were intimidated by him. Not so much that you were actually intimidated, but you knew that it wasn’t going to be like racing with someone else. If he got to you and if he didn’t get by you in a couple of corners, then he was going to lean on you a little bit. You might wreck, you might keep going, but he was going to make it interesting. That’s what made him so special. The first Bud Shootout we won at Daytona, we outran him there and that was as much as I ever wanted to see of that black ‘3’ in my mirror. That was way too much stress. It was more mental stress than it was physical stress. My mind was wore out after winning that race because he had such a large bag of tricks at Daytona and Talladega that just watching what he was doing and trying to figure out what he was thinking or trying to set up just made you exhausted. Driving the car was easy, it was just trying to mentally figure out and trying to stay up to pace with what his thought process was at the time and knowing how to anticipate what his next move was going to be to beat him.”

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