Tony Stewart has been largely an invisible man during the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Disappointing finishes in the Chase’s first two races – 24th at Loudon and 21st at Dover – dropped Stewart into the pit of the Chase dozen. Although he won two weeks later at Auto Club Speedway, he followed with sour runs at Charlotte (21st), Martinsville (24th) and Talladega (31st) and sits eighth in points with two races to go.
This week, however, could open the door for a solid finish to the season for the two-time champion. Sunday’s race is at Phoenix International Raceway, a track where Stewart has raced virtually every kind of competition vehicle and a place where he has seven top-five finishes in Sprint Cup activity.
He has made enough laps at PIR to have a solid understanding of the track’s somewhat wacky setup – turns one and two don’t match turns three and four, and the difference is so significant that teams typically opt to try to be very good on one end of the track and hope for the best on the other.
“Every type of car that I’ve driven here – from USAC Midgets and Silver Crown cars to Supermodifieds to Indycars to Nationwide cars and now the Sprint Cup cars – running all those different divisions, the one common variable is the two ends of the track are unique and different from each other,” Stewart said. “It’s always been a situation where if your car is really good in three and four, you’re normally a little bit tight in one and two, and if you get one and two really good, you’re normally a little bit too loose in three and four.
“You do have to weigh the options and try to find that balance of which end of the track is more important to you. You know you’re not going to be perfect in both ends, and you’ll have to pick one end or the other to get your car really good. I do have a preference, but I don’t tell everybody else that. That’s what having all these years and these laps of experience there does for me. It’s the one secret variable that I try to use to my advantage.”
Although championship contender Jimmie Johnson has been the dominant Sprint Cup driver at PIR in recent seasons, Stewart has to be ranked among the top contenders this weekend as the series rolls toward its conclusion.
“I’ve logged a bunch of laps there,” Stewart said. “To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it’s the place where my career came full-circle. When we ran the USAC cars out there, it was pretty cool because I had never gone that fast before. It’s just one of those tracks that to run a Midget and a Silver Crown car there, it definitely got your attention. It was pretty fast.”
In addition to all sorts of races, Stewart also has run thousands of laps at PIR in testing, yet another reason he knows every inch of the track.
“Myself and Arie Luyendyk were the two lead test drivers for Firestone when we were in the IndyCar Series,” he said. “We spent a lot of time in Phoenix because the weather is so good out there all year long. We would spend three days out there tire testing, and we had two or three of those sessions through the winter.
“I got to spend a lot of time running around Phoenix. I probably know every line around the track that’s ever been run and why it’s been run. It helps when you get in the stock cars or anything you get in when you’re out there. I pretty much know how to get around there.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.