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Sprint Cup - Stewart Dover Preview

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KANNAPOLIS, Sept. 29, 2011: Back in the day, Tony Stewart gave George Thorogood a run for his money as the real Delaware Destroyer.

Wilmington, Del., native Thorogood, and his band, the Delaware Destroyers, pumped out such hits as “Bad to the Bone” and a resounding cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” en route to 16 studio albums, two of which went Platinum while six more went Gold.

But in the early 2000s, it was Stewart who seemed to be the real Delaware Destroyer, as he was bad to the bone at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.

From the time Stewart rolled around the high-banked, 1-mile oval as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie in 1999 and then on through the 2004 season, his worst finish was 11th. And during that span, Stewart scored two wins – back-to-back, no less, in 2000 – and notched eight top-fives and 11 top-10s in 12 starts, all while leading a whopping 1,066 laps, or 22.2 percent of the 4,800 laps available. If Stewart were asked the question, “Who Do You Love?” his answer would be “Dover.”

Then, like Austin Powers, he somehow lost his mojo at Dover, for since 2005, Stewart has only led six laps and has just three top-10s with a best finish of second in June 2009.

Now “Delaware Destroyer” takes on new meaning, for the aptly named “Monster Mile” could potentially destroy Stewart’s championship chances if he has a run like he did when the series last visited Dover in May, where he started 27th and finished six laps down in 29th.

But if there ever was a team that could rally from such a performance, it’s Stewart and the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 squad of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), for they’ve been rallying all season.

After round No. 3 of the 36-race season, Stewart and Co. were atop the point standings thanks to three straight races where they contended for the win. Then, adversity bit the No. 14 team, where they went from challenging for wins to enduring challenging top-10s. By the time they entered the midpoint of the season, Stewart was 12th in points, and with no wins, was in danger of missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But quietly, the Office Depot/Mobil 1 team began to rally. Five top-10s were scored in the next nine races, including a strong second-place finish in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon to SHR teammate Ryan Newman. By the time the Chase cutoff race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway was over, Stewart was ninth in points and in the 10-race Chase for the seventh time of his career.

Once in the Chase, the mojo Stewart had been searching for all season long returned. He knocked down his first Sprint Cup win of the season and the 40th of his career when he won the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. It put Stewart second in points, just seven markers out of the top spot, heading into the second Chase race at New Hampshire.

In his return to New Hampshire, Stewart finished one spot better than he had in July. The victory gave Stewart back-to-back wins for the eighth time in his Sprint Cup career, with the previous occurrence coming in July 2007 when he won back-to-back races at Chicagoland and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It also allowed for a 14-point swing, with Stewart taking the lead in the Chase standings by seven points over second-place Kevin Harvick.

Now, Dover looms again. It’s the third race of the Chase, and Stewart enters it with a good bit of trepidation, but thanks to his recent win streak, plenty of momentum. His team’s uncanny ability to rally, as demonstrated over the past four races where they’ve finished third, seventh, first and first, is what has allowed them to battle back from adversity and remake themselves into championship contenders.

As a two-time Sprint Cup champion (2002 and 2005), Stewart knows that titles are hard-earned, and with 13 years of Sprint Cup experience in his pocket, he fully expects Dover to test the resolve of him and his race team. But for a team that’s been tested all season long, it’s just another performance review.

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

Every driver says that Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway is the wild-card track in the Chase, because anything can happen there. But it seems every driver has another track on the Chase schedule where they feel a little vulnerable. Is Dover that track for you?

“Dover has been the track where we’ve struggled the most, so I think that’s the one that we have to look at and say, ‘This is one that we have to figure out and do better if we’re going to have a shot at this.’ We have to survive there.”

When you have a day where you’re struggling, how important is it to make something out of nothing?

“It can be the difference between sitting at the head table and finishing third or fourth in points. You’re not going to have 10 perfect days. You’re going to have at least one day that’s going to be a little more challenging than the rest. It’s the team that can overcome that and rebound and make the most of it that’s going to salvage that day. It can be the difference between two or three spots at the end of the Chase.”

You’ve won at every track in the Chase, including Dover. How helpful is that?

“We’ve been good at all of them at some point in the last 13 years, but we’ve struggled a little bit at some of them this year. We’ve had one of those years where we’ve been just been a little bit off and weird things have happened. Hopefully, we’ve got that bad luck behind us and we can get back on a winning streak at these tracks.”

Before you started the Chase, you didn’t include yourself among your own list of viable championship contenders. You’re the point leader now. Has your opinion changed?

“The last four weeks have been awesome, but we’ve got a tough hurdle ahead of us at Dover. We really struggled there, and that’s the one race in the Chase I’m worried about the most, but this is the best scenario we can have going into it. Our guys are pumped up and I’m proud of Darian (Grubb, crew chief) and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing. They never give up. We’re going to keep digging these next eight weeks.”

How much momentum has back-to-back wins given you?

“When you talk about momentum, that racecar doesn’t know anything about momentum. It knows what you put in it and it knows how we drive it, but it doesn’t know stats. It doesn’t know anything other than just what’s in it. Momentum deals with people. It’s not just these first two races of the Chase, it was the two weeks leading into the Chase, too. We haven’t finished outside the top-seven in the last four weeks. That’s huge for us. It’s huge for our guys. We had one of those seasons up to the Chase where we couldn’t do anything right. We couldn’t get it clicking. We couldn’t get through all the bad luck. It seems like every week something would happen and we’d have to dig ourselves out of a hole. I’m hoping and praying that we’re through that string of bad luck now and things are going to click the next eight weeks.”

How do you approach these next eight weeks?

“One day at a time like we’ve done for 31 years of our racing career. The philosophy of how to win races and championships doesn’t change from week to week. You do the same thing. It starts on Friday and you take it one day at a time.”

Your team has seemingly been rallying all season long. Can you speak to the resolve of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 team?

“I think it shows the camaraderie that we’ve got with the whole team. Ryan (Newman, teammate) and Tony Gibson (crew chief for Newman) have been awesome the last couple of weeks, doing everything they can to help us be better. That’s just kind of the attitude our whole shop’s had. We’ve all been working together.”

Dover’s surface is concrete. Do you have to alter your driving style when you race on concrete?

“I don’t think you drive it any differently. But because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would. There are seams in Dover’s surface and places where they’ve cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there, the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that’s constantly changing. But it’s one of those places where you really can’t change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It’s just a matter of finding the package that’s right for that racetrack. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track – either the car is going to be tight or it’s going to be loose.”

Dover is a pretty unique track being that it’s a high-banked, 1-mile concrete oval. How do you approach it?

“Dover is a track that is kind of a two-phase deal. It’s easy to get your car too tight in the center (of the corner) trying to get it to drive up off the corner nice, and it seems like if you get it to rotate through the corner, then it’s way loose off. Those are the two things that you really battle there. It’s the sacrifice of where do you want to be a little bit off to accomplish having a balanced car.”