With a place in the Chase on the cards after a resurgent few weeks on track, Tony Stewart’s final season as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver is warming up just at the right time. As NASCAR heads to Watkins Glen this weekend, Lee Spencer reports on the enduring appeal of Smoke, and his unparalleled success at a track affectionately known as ‘Tony’s House’.
Tony Stewart is looking for redemption at Watkins Glen this weekend.
In the 33 Cup races NASCAR has held at the 2.45-mile circuit since 1957, no other racer has enjoyed Stewart’s level of success.
He’s the only driver to score five career Cup wins. From 1999 to 2010, his record featured seven podium finishes and 10 top-10s at the historic track, nestled in the bucolic Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
“There is something about that place that we figured out,” Stewart said. “There are parts that we knew were important and that’s where we focused on getting our car good. When we could, it made our cars fast.”
Stewart’s accomplishments at the Glen can be correlated to the driver’s desire for speed. While Sonoma Raceway is more of a finesse track, racers at Watkins Glen must balance a fast car with a high degree of aggressiveness – something Stewart has never been short of. His unequalled average qualifying effort of 6.1 is proof of that.
“Watkins Glen is just sheer speed,” Stewart said. “It’s about being able to carry a lot of corner speed, [so] brakes are still an issue there. You are carrying so much speed there that at the end of three long straightaways, you have to really be hard on the brakes to get slowed down.
“Going up through the esses at Watkins Glen is probably the coolest part of that race track, because it’s two blind corners at the top. You have to really be on the gas running fast, but it’s fun. It’s a very fun racetrack if you can get your timing down and get your car to do what you want it to do. It’s a blast to be racing there.”
Lately, the driver known as ‘Smoke’ has endured his share of challenges surrounding the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen. If bad luck does indeed come in threes, Stewart should have maxed out his misfortune heading into this weekend.
In 2013, Stewart broke his leg in a sprint car wreck in Iowa, just days before the NASCAR tour rolled into the Glen. He was sidelined for the final 15 races of the season. One year later, Stewart was involved in an accident in which his car fatally struck fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr., after Ward exited his own car during a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, 50-miles north of Watkins Glen.
Stewart showed promise at the Glen last year when he qualified third. However, the rear end gear failed on the No. 14 Chevy, 56 laps into the 90-lap Cheez-It 355. Stewart finished last (43rd) following his first mechanical failure in 15 starts at the track.
Although Stewart, 45, announced he was retiring from NASCAR competition at the end of the 2016 season, he entered the year with tremendous hope and a new crew chief – Mike Bugarewicz. Following a remarkable career that’s spanned nearly four decades, and which includes three NASCAR championships, an IndyCar title and the USAC Triple Crown (midgets, sprints and Silver Crown), Stewart has absolutely nothing left to prove.
Yet, just weeks before the 2016 season began, Stewart broke his back in a dune buggy accident in California. He missed the first eight races of the season, but returned with a vengeance. As Stewart acclimated to his new crew chief – and a new aerodynamic package for the race cars – his results were inconsistent.
Stewart’s breakthrough came in his eighth start of the season – and another road course – Sonoma Raceway. That victory ignited the team’s momentum and incited Smoke’s legions of fans. Their encouragement has spurred the team to six finishes of 11th or higher in the last seven races.
Bugarewicz sees the spark in his driver.
“Just as he’s shown more progress each race and each weekend, he gets back that desire and that drive,” Bugarewicz told Mobil 1 The Grid. “Each week we’re qualifying better, we’re racing better, we’re practicing better – and there’s no give up whatsoever.
“He’s outstanding at Watkins Glen, that goes without saying. The track record is there. But I think we have a lot of good tracks coming up. Bristol, he’s run good at. Darlington, he wants to win really bad at – he still hasn’t won there. And Michigan was a really good track for us.
“You can definitely see he’s determined to make a good run here for the championship at the end of the year.”
And why not? Stewart believes the team has nothing to lose and everything to gain entering his final Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I feel like, the next six weeks, we will need to continue to build on what we’ve built up to this point,” Stewart said. “If I felt like we were a contender to win every race right now, then maybe I would want the Chase to begin now but we need to gain a little bit before the Chase starts.
“We are going to make good use of the next five races.”
Certainly, a win at the Glen could be just what Stewart needs to propel him to a fourth Sprint Cup title.
Securing a fourth championship and tying Jeff Gordon for fourth on the all-time titles list would represent a remarkable resurgence in Stewart’s career, not least after injuries and personal tragedy cast doubt on his ability to win again. But if Stewart’s performance has been an up-and-down proposition over the past three years, his popularity has been enduring.
Stewart has an ‘Everyman’ quality that endears him to a loyal legion of fans, and his willingness to speak his mind, and to serve as a lightning rod within the Sprint Cup garage, have contributed to his stature in the sport. No doubt, Stewart will remain a popular and influential figure in a NASCAR ownership role long after he leaves the seat of a Sprint Cup car for the last time.