An interview with:
DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the NASCAR teleconference in advance of this weekend’s NASCAR events at Talladega Superspeedway. Joining us today is Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet for Stewart Haas Racing. Sunday’s AMP Energy Juice 500 is the seventh race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup event. Tony is among the 12 drivers eligible for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in the Chase. He heads to Talladega seventh in the standings with two wins this season, his latest coming three weeks ago during the race at Auto Club Speedway.
Tony, highly anticipated event this weekend where we had a record number of lead changes in April. Do you think we’ll see something similar or folks taking different tactics this time?
TONY STEWART: I think we’ve seen in the last couple of years there’s a period in the race where everybody gets in a big hurry, then there’s a period in the race where everybody calms down, settles in for a little bit and gets ready for the push at the end.
I think we’ll probably see that. But I think you’re going to see guys that are going to try to take advantage of that part of the race where everything kind of slows down a little bit and everybody calms down. I think there’s going to be guys trying to take advantage of that a little more and trying to get a second and third line going at that stage.
DENISE MALOOF: Sounds good. Let’s go straight to questions for Tony Stewart.
Q. Tony, it seems the media has a perspective on Talladega, an expectation of what the events will be. From your seat, how do you look at this event and what is your tactic coming into this weekend for Sunday?
TONY STEWART: Well, it’s obviously one, because of the fact it is a restrictor plate race, it’s no secret that it’s a very mentally taxing race. It’s not physically challenging, it’s mentally challenging.
The hard part is staying focused for 500 miles when you know you can’t make a mistake any direction. But you don’t know how it’s always going to play out. That’s the hard part. You can’t predict when there’s going to be a wreck. You can’t predict when guys are going to get in a line on the top of the racetrack, you know, do the Dale Jr. line. He’s the one that started that whole thing. You don’t know when that’s going to happen.
The hard part is trying to anticipate all those scenarios. Everybody has a different strategy for what to do to be there at the end. The hard thing is that it’s a 188-lap race, but the last 10 laps are what really matter and set the tone for what’s going to happen on the last lap. You basically in those 178 laps are trying to take care of yourself.
Racers are still racers. There will be guys in a hurry at the beginning of the race, there are guys that appear to be in a hurry, but they’re trying to see what they have car-wise. There will be guys that drop to the back, not because they have a problem, but because they’re trying to take care of themselves, not get into a position they can’t get out of. A lot of times it’s self-preservation.
Sunday, there are going to be a lot of cars that look like they just came off the racetrack at Martinsville. It’s definitely a scenario where you have to be patient, you have to let the guys that are impatient, in a hurry, you have to let them do their thing and you have to stick to your plan. It’s hard to anticipate what everybody’s individual race plans are going to be.
Q. Texas next weekend. In each of the last five seasons, a winner at Atlanta has also won at Texas in the same year. You won Atlanta a few weeks back. Does that make you feel pretty good coming into Texas? Do you feel you should unload with the right setup?
TONY STEWART: Well, you never know. The hard part is, even if you were the guy that won the Texas race in the spring, it’s such a long gap between the spring and fall race that you got to keep in mind our sport is a technology-driven sport. Guys make their programs better. Shock programs change. Setups change. The conditions that you have temperature-wise can be different. Just because you were good there before, just because you were good in Atlanta, doesn’t guarantee you’ll be good at Texas the second time around.
But it’s a lot better scenario of going into Texas knowing that we ran well there in the spring and that we did run well at Atlanta, I guess. That does give you a little bit of comfort knowing that you were good there in the previous times.
Like I say, it’s still no guarantee you’re going to be successful this time, but you have the comfort of knowing the last time you were there we were pretty decent till we crashed.
Q. A lot of drivers talk about turn two at Texas, the banking literally falls out from underneath them. Can you describe that sensation, what it feels like for you?
TONY STEWART: It does. I know when they built the track it was kind of explained why that is. The entry and exit of these corners, they’re very abrupt as far as the banking. When you turn in the corner, very abrupt getting in, and falls off very quickly. The reason for that, when they built Texas Motor Speedway, they intended to have the IndyCars race on the apron. That’s why the apron is so wide at Texas. The IndyCars were not originally meant to run on the banking. That’s why the banking on the entry of the corner and exit falls off so fast so the cars could come from the straightaway from the apron and back up with a smooth transition from the bottom.
It makes it a different challenge than what we have at Charlotte or Atlanta because of that. It does make it a lot more challenging to get your car set up for it. You can’t relax on the entry and you can’t relax on the exit of the corner. That banking, a lot of times your car, it’s hard to get your car secure on the entry because you don’t have that banking to hold it.
Once you get in the corner, it seems like it’s all right. Same thing happens on the exit. Especially like what you’re talking about in turn two, it’s the tighter of the two exits of the racetrack. You’re still trying to finish the corner there and you have to keep tugging on the steering wheel and at the same time make sure you don’t lose the back at the same time.
It definitely falls out from under you. When it does, you have to make sure your car is tight enough to make it through that transition.
Q. Tony, I wanted to ask you about strategy. I think you probably used both ways, dropping back to the back of the pack at Talladega and running up front for a while. Is there anything to that or is strategy out of window when it comes to Talladega?
TONY STEWART: Well, I think you still have to stick to your strategy, whatever it is. But you look at our stats, granted we’ve only won one race at Talladega, but we’ve run second six, seven or eight times there. A lot of those races we ran in the back a lot of the race, just taking it easy, taking care of our car, knowing that the important part of the race is later in the day.
As long as you can stay in that lead draft, that’s the important thing to Talladega. It’s not necessarily the fact that the pit stops can get very, very difficult there with guys taking two tires or no tires. If you are one of those guys that ride in the back, you have to be really careful in the pit stops. A lot of times when you’re coming in, there are guys finishing two-tire stops or took fuel and are on their way out. That’s one of the more challenging parts to take it easy and be careful.
I think guys have an idea of how they want to run their race and I think guys are comfortable with the strategy that they use. There’s a lot of guys in the field that are fighting for jobs still. Those guys don’t really have that flexibility to ride around. They’re trying to impress car owners. Those guys are fighting all day long to stay up as high as they can, and there’s guys that have done this a long time that have a more methodical approach to it.
Everybody has that different strategy. I think that’s the fun part, is trying to figure out, whether you’re watching on TV or listening on the radio, trying to figure out what each individual driver’s strategy is. I think there’s times when the fans get discouraged that their driver is running in the back.
The good thing about Talladega is you can just about be guaranteed if your driver is in the back, they’re choosing to be there at that point in the race, not because they don’t have a very good racecar.
The great thing about Talladega is you can’t count anybody out. Those last 10 laps is when everything is going to happen and guys are going to play different strategies at times, especially with Chase guys. Even if the Chase guy isn’t up front, he might take a gamble on a pit stop to get those five bonus points.
There’s a lot of different scenarios and strategies that play out during the race that make it to where I know in the past we’ve heard it was boring, not interesting to watch. I think you have to look a lot deeper than just seeing guys three-wide all day. The three-wide isn’t the cool part about it. I think the interesting part to me is the strategies being played out and trying to figure out what driver has what strategy and what their plan is to be good at the end of the day, seeing how it plays out.
To me, the whole race is exciting just trying to see and analyze what each driver is trying to think. That’s what we’re doing in the car, figure out what other drivers are doing in the race and what their strategies are.
Q. Is there anything a driver can do leading on that white-flag lap to not make themselves a sitting duck?
TONY STEWART: Only if you got somebody pushing you from behind. The sad part is, I love going to Talladega, it’s one of my favorite places to go to during the season, I get to go to the dirt track every night across the street, watch Red Farmer race, get to see a lot of my friends there. It’s a fun weekend. I love going down there.
But it’s the one place that is very nerve-wracking in the Chase because you realize a lot of your success on that individual day is going to be dictated more from the people behind you than what you’re actually doing yourself. That’s the part that makes it difficult with it being a Chase race. You’re trying to go out and have an individual accomplishment for a season-ending championship, and it can be dictated a lot by what the guys behind you are doing. That’s what makes it a little bit more difficult.
Q. Tony, you’ve had considerable success, a lot of laps between the first time you broke into Cup. You do a great job of explaining every little detail of a race. Can you compare your approach to driving, what it was like when you first broke into Cup to what it’s like this year?
TONY STEWART: At Talladega, for sure. When I first started, it was get everything you can get every lap. If somebody gave you the little bit of a hole, you took advantage of it. Then the longer you ran, the more you got to race with guys like Dale Sr., Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, those guys. You realize you’ll see guys during the race that hole opens up and they don’t take advantage of it, they let a guy get back in line and it’s going to put him in a bad spot. The guys, the longer they do this, the smarter they are about, yeah, you can put that guy in the middle, you can hang that guy out to dry, but it can come back and cost you later on in the day when you need that guy’s help.
You learn to think about what’s important during the race. Part of the strategy isn’t necessarily what you’re doing, but it’s also about how you’re running with guys around you and working with those guys to where later in the race, they’re behind you, you feel like you have their support that you took care of them early in the race and they’re going to take care of you at the end.
There’s a lot of times where you’re going to see guys that are more relaxed there and more accustomed to knowing how to be good for the end of the race that will take care of guys, not put them in bad spots just to ensure they’re keeping these guys on their good graces towards the end of the race.
Q. What tracks were the hardest for you to adjust to over the years?
TONY STEWART: Oh, God, I think all of them at some point were hard. When I came into NASCAR racing, I didn’t run a lot in the Nationwide Series. My first year I ran eight races with Harry Ranier, the second year I ran five for Gibbs, the second year was 22 for Gibbs. I probably barely ran a full season in three years before I started in Cup.
It still was a huge learning curve for me to get used to short tracks, superspeedways, intermediate tracks, road courses. They were all at different stages challenging because there’s so much variation. Just like Texas. If you look at it over the top, it looks just like Charlotte and Atlanta, but the way they race and drive are different. Each track has its own personality. It takes time to, A, learn a car that I wasn’t familiar with and, B, learn tracks I wasn’t familiar with. At some point it was definitely challenging to each track.
Q. When NASCAR starts using an ethanol blend of fuel, what are your concerns with performance given your experience with methanol or ethanol?
TONY STEWART: If you can make Jell-O burn and they decide we’re going to run Jell-O in the fuel cells, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t build the engines, so it’s really not a concern from my standpoint. Hopefully it’s better for our environment, and obviously we’re in a world, all around the world, obviously everybody is worried about our environment and what we can do to make it better. NASCAR hasn’t stepped aside from that. They’re active in trying to figure out how we can protect our environment and at the same time keep a sport alive that we love.
So I’m proud of them for that. I’m proud of them for pushing that direction. I obviously don’t know the technical side of how that will affect the cars and everything. But the good thing is that it will most likely affect everybody evenly. It’s up to the engine builders to figure out the technical side of how to make that work.
If it’s going to help our environment and we still get to go out and do what we do in front of millions of people every week, I’m all in favor of it.
Q. Could you point out the main factors, what races you have circled on your calendar for this season?
TONY STEWART: All 38 races. We really don’t pinpoint anything. They’re all important. All the races pay the same amount of points each week, except for the two special events obviously. You have to treat each of them as important as any of the other races.
Obviously going to Indy is a big deal to me, and obviously the Daytona 500 is huge because it’s our biggest race of the year. Aside from those two, you treat them all the same. They’re all evenly important. Obviously the last 10 weeks are what it’s all about as far as deciding the championship. So you have to obviously circle those on the calendar.
But, you know, I guess I’ve always been one of those guys from day one that I came into this series I always said you take it one day at a time, one week at a time. That’s what we do. We don’t put more emphasis on any race than the one before or after it.
Q. Tony, you’re a distant seventh in the Chase, six races in. Could you talk about how disappointed you are or whether you felt like you gave it the best effort you could, this is how things came about, what your feelings are about how the Chase has gone for you?
TONY STEWART: It just kind of is what it is. Obviously the weeks that didn’t go right, I would love to be able to go back and try to make them better. But, you know, there’s a lot of guys that have had weeks they wish they can make better.
It’s just part of the sport. When you have a sport that has 43 cars and drivers in it every week, only one guy gets to go to Victory Lane, there’s 42 guys that didn’t accomplish their goals.
I can’t sit here and say that I’m happy about where we’re at, but I guess there’s 31 teams and drivers that wish they even had a chance to race for the championship and were in the Chase. I feel fortunate that we’re there. We accomplished that side of the goal. We probably aren’t going to have the reality of accomplishing the second side of it, and that’s trying to win a championship this year.
Q. Tony, a couple of months ago we talked about maybe you adding another driver to your team. I realize the economy is still on the soft side. But have you considered adding a third member to your team or is everything still in a hold position?
TONY STEWART: Well, we’re at the end of October. If we were going to do that, we would have liked to have had it started and had the decision made by the middle of summer. It’s not going to happen for next year.
We obviously would love it. The goal of the organization is to be a four-car team eventually. Yes, I mean, down the road we want to have a third team and a fourth team after that. Like you said, there’s a lot of challenges right now in the sport. It’s hard keeping the two cars that we have financed right now.
We’ve got great partners. We just added Mobil 1. I think it’s a compliment to our organization that we’ve been able to attract some major companies and still have the support of Office Depot, the U.S. Army, Haas Automation, Tornados, Coca-Cola, all these companies that are with our program, I’m proud that we have. I think it’s something that you can’t take for granted in this economy right now. To have these partners with us, I feel like we’re very fortunate and blessed to have them. But it’s not an easy task to add a team right now. You don’t see very many teams adding a car to their stable.
It is something we want to do. It didn’t work out to do for us for the 2011 season. When we get the right opportunity, and the right partner and driver, if we can get that combination, we’re definitely interested in that for sure.
Q. If things do turn around and start to look good, how would you do it? Would you look at some of the drivers that have been currently racing in the sport for a while or do you look at some of the young guys coming up?
TONY STEWART: Both. You look at all your options. I don’t think as a car owner, there’s a car owner out there they’re going to lock out one of those categories or another. You have to look at what all your options are.
I think a lot of it depends on the partner that you bring in. If it’s a partner that wants instant success, you have to look at guys that are proven commodities in the sport. If you have a partner that is willing to let you take somebody and take a chance on somebody that you think has a lot of potential, that frees you up even more to look at somebody that’s upcoming and deserves a good chance.
I think a lot of that somewhat can be dictated by the partner you bring in, kind of get their temperature on what their expectations are.
Q. Tony, next year I know you love Indianapolis, but how about the series coming to a spot not too far from your home, the Kentucky Speedway?
TONY STEWART: Excited about it. It’s almost as close to where I grew up in Columbus, Indiana, as Indy is. It’s a little bit further obviously. We have a lot of friends down in that area. A lot of dirt track friends. It’s cool to be racing in their backyard. Hopefully some of those people we know all of our life will get a chance to come watch us there.
You look at the progress that the speedway and the determination they’ve had to get a Cup race there, they definitely have deserved one. From the day it was announced they got it, they started tearing ground up right away to add and make improvements to the facility to try to accommodate more people for a Cup race.
Very happy that they got it. I feel like it’s a part of our country that has deep racing roots and is very deserving of a Cup date.
Q. You making some more improvements next year at El Dora?
TONY STEWART: Always. The thing I’ve learned about racetracks and life is you’re never satisfied with what you’ve got; you always want to do things to make it better. That’s the fun part for me as a track owner, sitting down at the end of the year and discussing with our staff what ideas we have to make it better for the fans, to make it better for the drivers, the owners, and see how we can try to help grow the sport.
All three of those areas have to grow at the same time. So it’s fun to sit there and try to figure out what kind of improvements and what our plan is for the upcoming season to try to make it better for everybody.
Q. Pick for the World Series?
TONY STEWART: Not yet. Too early to tell. I’m just looking forward to it. The cool thing is we got two teams that are definitely hungry for a championship. It’s going to be fun to watch. I’m not going to miss a game.
DENISE MALOOF: Tony, we really appreciate your time today, as always. Thank you for joining us and best of luck at Talladega.
TONY STEWART: All right, guys. Thank you.
DENISE MALOOF: To all the media who joined us, we also appreciate your time. We’ll see you again next week.
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