California Love for Stewart

Tony Stewart was born and raised in Indiana, while his hero, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Anthony Joseph (A.J.) Foyt Jr., hails from Texas. But when it comes to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, both have found plenty of success in Southern California.

Foyt, who made the No. 14 famous throughout his legendary motorsports career, won two Sprint Cup races from the pole (February 1971 and March 1972) and finished in the top-15 in all five races he competed in at the 2.5-mile Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway between 1971-1977. Foyt also never qualified lower than fifth at Ontario, which was closed and demolished following the 1980 season.

Stewart, who proudly carries the No. 14 on his Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) as a tribute to his friend and hero Foyt, has been equally successful in Southern California, albeit at a different venue.

Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., opened in 1997 and sits just two miles to the west of the Ontario site, and since 1999 when Stewart started seventh and finished fourth at the 2-mile oval as a Sprint Cup rookie, it’s where the now 14-year veteran has a win (October 2010) and 11 top-10 finishes in 20 career Sprint Cup starts.

Much of Stewart’s Fontana success has come recently, as he has finished 13th or better in 10 of his last 12 races at Auto Club Speedway. In his last 10 races at the speedway 50 miles east of Los Angeles, he has completed all 2,400 laps available to him and led six races for a total of 87 laps.

It will be 40 years to the month since Foyt won his second race at Ontario, and Stewart would love nothing more than to score his second Fontana win in Sunday’s Auto Club 400. It’s completely doable, as no driver has been hotter than the three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion at intermediate-type ovals such as Fontana.

Dating back to last September, Stewart has won six of the last 14 Sprint Cup races, with victories at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. (September 2011), New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon (September 2011), Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (October 2011), Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth (November 2011), Homestead-Miami Speedway (November 2011) and Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 2012).

Four of those victories – Chicagoland, Texas, Homestead and Las Vegas – came on intermediate tracks, which makes Stewart one of the favorites heading into Sunday’s race.

And while a second victory at Fontana would equal Foyt’s victory total in Southern California, it would also tie Stewart with another motorsports legend, Buck Baker. Stewart has 45 career Sprint Cup wins and is just one victory behind 1956 and 1957 Sprint Cup champion Baker for 14th on the all-time series win list.

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

How hard is it to start the season at Daytona and then have two races on the West Coast (Phoenix and Las Vegas), then come back to the East Coast with a race in Bristol, Tenn., only to head back out west to Fontana?

“It’s a tough couple of weeks for the teams. It’s easy for a lot of us because we got the chance to go from Phoenix straight over to Vegas and kind of relax for the week after Daytona was over. It’s really the hardest on the truck drivers and the crews to try to figure out how to get all the equipment back and forth. There are still only seven days in a week, and you have a short turnaround time. It does make it a challenge for the teams. As much as you want to put all your effort into getting ready to go to Daytona, you really have to prepare to get through Bristol and Martinsville and all these races because of the short turnaround times. We’re used to coming out to the West Coast early in the year and going back and forth. It’s something that you know ahead of time and prepare for. It’s something you do have to think about. If you start tearing up racecars early in the year, it can get you in a bind in a hurry.”

Your SHR co-owner, Gene Haas, is a California native, and he said recently that you’re the most relaxed he’s ever seen you. Can you talk about that?

Gene makes it easy. That’s why it’s so easy to do what we do. We have a great partner. He’s been so easy to work with from day one. He’s never sat me down and said, ‘We have to finish here, here or here. We have to win this many races.’ He’s like, ‘What can we do to make our program better?’ That’s what I appreciate from his leadership side. He obviously is a successful businessman and he knows how to work with people and he knows how to be successful on the business side. He’s really helped me understand how to run the business side of it. The racing thing is kind of my niche a little bit more than it was his. I think we’re a good team together. It’s having a partner like this that gives you confidence, pats you on the shoulder, says, ‘Have fun, good luck, let’s go out and do the best we can.’ He doesn’t put that pressure on you. So there’s not that huge weight on your shoulders. I think it makes it a lot easier to go out and do what we do each week because we have a partner who makes it easy.”

Prior to your win at Fontana in October 2010, your best Fontana finish was fourth and you typically had a top-10 car, at best. What changed?

“Fontana is so momentum driven, and when it’s as slick as it was back in October, it puts it back in the driver’s hands, and I think that’s always going to be to my advantage. We’ve had times when we’ve been good, but I had really struggled there over the course of 12 years.

“It’s just a very difficult place to get a hold of, and if you can get your car balanced, you really can drive away from the majority of the field and get a pretty big gap there. But, it’s hard to do. You have to have that balance perfect. Somebody is going to get it right. I mean, somebody gets it perfect every time we go there.

“It’s getting harder and harder to get to where you have an advantage over somebody and can be that much better. But I thought the racing the last couple of years has been really good. The year I won, the restarts early in the race were out of control. We were five-wide sometimes, and I know because I was one of them that put a bunch of guys five-wide early in the deal clear on the bottom, and I think we gained four spots in one corner doing it. But guys know how important these restarts are now, and they’re willing to take more chances. And at Fontana, the track is so wide, you can run so many different lines.

“The track is good and it’s racy, but man, it’s difficult. The seams are slick. The racetrack is slick. It’s not an old track, but it sure races like an old, worn-out track.”

Fontana is a track where a driver can search for different grooves, as opposed to some other tracks on the circuit where there is really only one true groove. As a driver, do you appreciate that more?

“It’s nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you’re not relying so much on the car. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day.”

At what point do you start to move around on the racetrack to find a better handle for your racecar?

“As soon as you feel like you’re not where you need to be. If you feel like you’re slower than the pace you need to be running, you’re going to move up the racetrack and find a place that helps balance your racecar.  Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out.”

Why is it that races at D-shaped ovals seem to be won in fairly dominating fashion?

“If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he’ll tend to run away. That’s just the characteristic of that kind of track. It’s fast, it’s flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he’s off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it’ll help them in the long run. You end up racing the racetrack instead of each other.”

Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at Fontana. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?

“I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it’s fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don’t have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Fontana is a track where if your car’s good, then it doesn’t matter whether you take two tires or four.”