A Breath of Fresh Air at Phoenix

From the hallowed grounds of Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway to the foot of Monument Hill, which way back in 1864 was the geographical starting point for what became the State of Arizona in 1912, Tony Stewart and his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series brethren are ready to settle into a bit of racing normalcy.

The season-opening Speedweeks at Daytona may offer stock car’s ultimate prize in the form of the Daytona 500’s Harley J. Earl Trophy, but it was also 10 solid days and nights of full-throttle activity on and off the racetrack that makes three-day events such as this weekend’s Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix International Raceway a breath of fresh air.

For Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing, every trip to the legendary facility west of Phoenix is a welcome part of the schedule.

Last November, however, there was some trepidation leading into Phoenix, which in addition to hosting round No. 2 on the Sprint Cup schedule, is home to the season’s penultimate race. The anxiety wasn’t from Stewart’s championship battle with Carl Edwards, but rather because the Phoenix Stewart had known since he first raced a USAC Silver Crown car at the 1-mile oval in 1993 was drastically different.

Soon after the Sprint Cup Series visited Phoenix last April, where Stewart led four times for 59 laps before finishing seventh, the track underwent a $15 million facelift that included a complete repaving and slight reconfiguration of its quirky layout.

The 47-year-old racetrack, with the 150-foot Monument Hill standing majestically to the east just outside turns three and four, was repaved for the first time since 1990 and renovated for the first time since 2003, when the familiar Goodyear Bridge over turn four was replaced by an access tunnel. The new, high-tech racing surface received variable banking in all four turns, and its unique backstretch dogleg was moved outward 95 feet and had its radius tightened from 800 to 500 feet all in the name of creating more side-by-side racing, the kind sister track Homestead-Miami Speedway became known for after a similar repaving project.

Stewart showcased his versatility by deftly handling the new layout. He led five times for a race-high 160 laps en route to a third-place finish that put him in position to secure his third Sprint Cup title a week later in the season finale at Homestead.

Getting that third-place finish, however, took a monumental effort in the race’s closing laps, as Stewart had to run down Jeff Burton and pass him for third off turn four on the final lap. That pass kept the point battle Stewart had with Edwards close, and once the checkered flag dropped at Homestead, the third-place finish Stewart earned at Phoenix proved decisive as Stewart and Edwards ended the season tied with 2,403 points. Stewart won the championship via a tiebreaker, as his five victories on the season trumped Edwards’ one. But if Stewart hadn’t passed Burton for third last November at Phoenix, the 1-point difference would’ve been enough for Edwards to win the championship.

Looking back, Phoenix served as an anchor point on Stewart’s 2011 championship charge. It’s fitting, then, that Monument Hill was designated by the U.S. Geological Survey as an anchor point for what was then the Territory of Arizona a full century before Phoenix International Raceway came to be. Located at the south side of the Gila River and the mouth of the Salt River, Monument Hill is surrounded by some of Arizona’s most fertile farmland, and it was declared the starting point for all Arizona survey efforts in 1864, as declared by a brass and aluminum marker at its summit. Today, its western slope is a popular viewing spot during race weekends.

Stewart’s history at the foot of Monument Hill is a rich one, as well. He was victorious at Phoenix during his rookie Sprint Cup season of 1999, and he has a win, eight top-fives, 11 top-10s and has led a total of 546 laps in his 20 career Sprint Cup starts there. His average Sprint Cup finish at Phoenix is 11.3, and he has a lap completion rate of 99.8 percent.

On top of all that, there is perhaps no driver who has logged more laps at Phoenix than Stewart. He’s competed at the mile oval in Sprint Cup cars, NASCAR Nationwide Series cars, Indy cars, Supermodifieds and USAC Midget and Silver Crown cars. Add up Stewart’s laps spent testing at the desert mile, and Stewart is in a league of his own.

So, after enduring the rigors of these most recent Speedweeks at Daytona, there’s nothing like hitting the familiar surroundings this weekend at stock car racing’s “Jewel of the Desert” in Arizona.

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

After spending so much time in Daytona for Speedweeks, how much of a relief is it to get back to a normal three-day race weekend?

“I think everybody’s pretty worn out after being in Daytona for so long. Phoenix means a normal routine and a chance for the crew guys to get back to their families for a couple of days before heading to another racetrack.”

Is too much emphasis placed on Daytona in terms of how teams are going to perform for the rest of the season?

“I think so. Daytona is a restrictor-plate race and, unlike Daytona, two guys can’t get in a line at Phoenix and go to the front. Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it’s more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can’t help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race.”

How long have you been racing at Phoenix?

“I started racing there in ’93 when I ran a USAC Silver Crown car. And since then, I’ve run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, Nationwide Series cars and, of course, Sprint Cup. So, I’ve logged a bunch of laps there. 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.”

Did you take an immediate liking to Phoenix in 1993 when you ran there in USAC?

“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 where, to run a Midget and a Silver Crown car there, it definitely got your attention. It was pretty fast.”

Did you get a pretty good paycheck that day?

“At that time, yeah, absolutely. When I was thinking about the $5 hours I was working at a machine shop, $3,500 was a pretty good payday.”

How did you transition from one type of racing to another?

“It’s more fear than anything that I’m going to have to get a real job if I’m not successful. That’s the great thing about running USAC and being in Indiana, where not only did we have winged Sprint cars and non-winged Sprint cars, Midgets, Silver Crown cars, we ran on dirt tracks one night and pavement the next. We ran Modifieds and Late Models. There were just so many things to drive around there that you learned how to adapt, and you learned how not to have a preconceived notion about how a racecar is supposed to feel and drive. You learned to read what the car was telling you as far as what it liked and disliked, and learned how to change your driving style accordingly. Especially at Phoenix, every car we’ve driven there, even though the track’s the same, they all drove differently. You just had to adapt to it and learn to read the racecar instead of thinking this is what the car I ran last night felt like and it’s supposed to feel like this today. It doesn’t work that way.”

How hard did you have to race Jeff Burton back in November to get that third-place finish?

“Every point counted. That’s why we raced Carl (Edwards) so hard and Kasey (Kahne) so hard. We led enough laps to lead the most laps. We were going for every single point we could get.

“I over-drove it in two corners before I finally passed him, but it just looked like he got a little tight and I was able to get rotated in the center and I got underneath him. But I don’t think he pushed the issue really hard. I think he raced us with respect and I appreciated that.”

How did you adjust so quickly to the reconfigured track and new surface?

“We go to dirt races and we get two to three laps of practice and you line up and qualify, so I felt like I had the ability to adapt to the new layout as well as anybody. I was comfortable with it from the start. I still wouldn’t have changed the shape the way they did. I guess the computers are smarter than the drivers these days. But I thought it was a good race. You had the flexibility to move up and down and, really, that’s all you can ask for. Our car was a little loose on restarts, but it just seemed like we were actually better on the outside than we were on the inside. Once the groove moved up, once they got rubber up there, the racetrack was wide enough you could run two-wide then.”