After consecutive disappointing runs at 1.5-mile tracks, three-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart is poised to get back on track this weekend at Richmond International Raceway.
The D-shaped, 0.75-mile oval is a place where Stewart has enjoyed considerable success over the years, winning three times, while amassing nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 26 starts. Stewart’s average finish at RIR is 10.885, which trails only Kyle Busch (5.000) and Denny Hamlin (7.583), teammates at Stewart’s old team, Joe Gibbs Racing.
Since forming Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, Stewart’s numbers have remained reasonably consistent at Richmond, with an average finish of 12.33 and a best of second in his first RIR race with the team three years ago.
Regardless of where he finishes, though, Stewart loves coming to RIR for some old-school short-track racing.
“It is my favorite track,” Stewart said of RIR. “It’s not one of them, it’s the favorite track of mine on the circuit. I’ve just always thought it’s the perfect-sized track for a Cup race. The other short tracks we run – Bristol and Martinsville – they’re cool in their own right, but there’s a lot of congestion at those two tracks. But at Richmond, it just seems like that extra quarter-mile, and that three-quarter-mile shape, and how wide the groove gets there, allows for good racing.”
And Stewart clearly is a fan of mixing it up, just as he’s a fan of the more cerebral elements of racing.
“It seems like we have to race ourselves and race the racetrack versus racing each other a lot of times,” he said. “You do have to race each other, obviously, but there are a lot of times during the race when you have the flexibility to move around on the racetrack and try to find a spot your car likes better than somewhere else. A lot of times on a short track you don’t have the flexibility. You’re more narrowed down with what groove you’re going to be in.”
Stewart comes into Saturday night’s Capital City 400 on kind of an erratic track so far. Never known as a fast starter, Stewart surprised the NASCAR field by winning two of the first five races of the season, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and at Auto Club Speedway. In the other six races so far this year, his only top 10 was a seventh at Martinsville Speedway.
On the other hand, teammate Ryan Newman won at Martinsville, making SHR victorious in three of eight races so far, an indicator that the team’s momentum from Stewart’s championship season has carried over.
“I’d like to think so,” Stewart said when asked if SHR has picked up where it left off last year. ”I think our whole organization has. For Ryan and me to both have wins this year is a start to the season that we’ve never had in our organization. Our guys did such an awesome job the last year in the Chase, but then it seemed like as soon as the Chase was over – literally, Monday morning – they were back at it and wanting to figure out what we could do to get another championship.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.