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Sprint Cup - Stewart Preview Darlington

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KANNAPOLIS, May 8, 2012: It was a month ago when golf made its annual pilgrimage to Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club for the Masters. The tradition-laden course crafted by golfing legend Bobby Jones in 1932 that began hosting the Masters in 1934 is an iconic venue – in golf and in sports in general.

Roughly 145 miles north of Augusta up Interstate 20 sits NASCAR’s version of Augusta National.

Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is NASCAR’s oldest venue. Built in 1949 by Harold Brasington, the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval has hosted NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races since 1950, and Saturday night will mark the 63rd running of the Southern 500 – one of the crown-jewel races on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, is well aware of Darlington’s history. The three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion covets a win at the track nicknamed “Too Tough To Tame”, as it is one of only two tracks the Sprint Cup Series visits where Stewart has yet to win – the other being Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, which hosted its first Sprint Cup race last July.

But beyond checking Darlington off his “to-do” list, Stewart knows the track’s history and its list of winners, particularly those who won and set the stage for NASCAR’s rise to mainstream prominence – inaugural Southern 500 winner Johnny Mantz and multi-time Darlington victors David Person, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon being some of the most notable.

Despite his open-wheel upbringing and Indiana roots, Stewart knows the Southern staple of racing at Darlington.

The track’s 25-degree-banked corners could also be called Amen Corner, for they’ve chewed up and spit out many a competitor. At best, driver’s finish the 500-mile marathon with a “Darlington Stripe,” the ubiquitous rite of passage that adorns the right sides of their racecars after a too-close encounter with the old school red-and-white striped walls that line the outside of the racetrack.

Stewart has endured his share of Darlington Stripes, but the 14-year Sprint Cup veteran has more often than not posted a respectable finish at the track that demands respect. In 19 career Sprint Cup starts, Stewart has three top-fives and 10 top-10s. He’s led only 20 total laps, but he has a lap completion rate of 98.9 percent.

Many a golfing great went winless at the Masters – Greg Norman, Hale Irwin, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Nick Price, etc. – and Stewart has no intention of seeing his name absent from the Darlington Raceway victory scroll. With NASCAR’s annual pilgrimage to its version of Augusta National next up on the Sprint Cup docket, Stewart sees opportunity to add another jewel to his crown.

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

Why is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver’s cap?

“A lot of it has to do with the history of the track. If you can say you won a race at Darlington – that’s a feather in your cap. That’s something to be proud of, knowing that you’re in a group of drivers with names like Pearson and Petty – the pioneers of our sport who you hear stories about the races they ran there and the races they won there.

“Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. You don’t see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it’s a track that’s like winning at Bristol. It’s the same type of feeling – knowing that you conquered something that’s very hard to obtain.”

It may not be in Sprint Cup, but you have won at Darlington. Even though it was a NASCAR Nationwide Series race in 2008, how did it feel to finally win for the first time there?

“With the rich heritage and history at Darlington – to win there and be the first guy to win after they resurfaced it – it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. It’s just cool to win at Darlington. You think back to guys like David Pearson who were so good there. This series is just so deep in history, and this is one of those tracks where the history goes as deep as NASCAR does. To finally get a win at Darlington was a huge honor for me.”

Does that win help in any way for what you want to accomplish when you return for this weekend’s Southern 500?

“It doesn’t hurt. Just because you won in a Nationwide Series car doesn’t guarantee success in the Cup car. We still have to go out and do our job on the Cup side. The cars drive totally different. We’ve got a lot more horsepower with the Cup cars than the Nationwide cars have, so the driving style is different. But still, we had a good run with the Nationwide car and then a good run in the Cup car, and I think that, as much as anything, gives you confidence.”

One of your old USAC T-shirts read “New Blood From an Old School.” In terms of you racing at Darlington, is that a shirt that could be sold again?

“I think that shirt would be appropriate at Darlington. Some people aren’t that deep into the history of the sport, but there are a lot of us who do appreciate the past. And I guess for me, being able to race at Darlington is a way of preserving the past.”

Coming from an open-wheel background, was Darlington a place that even open-wheel guys had respect for simply because of the track’s history?

“Absolutely. As much as we know about the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I think people underestimate how much we know about Darlington and the history of that track, and how hard it is to win races there. I guess that’s why a Sprint Cup win at Darlington is something that’s really important to me.”

Darlington was repaved back in 2007. Because the still relatively new pavement has increased speeds, does aerodynamics play a bigger role at Darlington?

“Aerodynamics plays a role everywhere we go nowadays. Martinsville might be the only track where aerodynamics doesn’t really play a role anymore. So even at a place like Darlington, you’ve got to make sure you keep the fenders straight because you need every bit of downforce you can get.”

The Darlington race is the night before Mother’s Day, and your mom – Pam Boas – will be one of the many mothers who will serve as grand marshals for Saturday night’s race. What kind of support has your mom given you during your racing career?

“My whole family supported me, basically. Mom was a little more reserved and a little more quiet about it than my father was. My father was kind of the ring leader. He was the one who made all the decisions on what we did and didn’t do. While she was a little bit reserved, she was, and still is, one of my biggest supporters.”

How would you describe your mom?

“She’s a pretty patient woman. Anyone that could actually raise me and not want to kill me or kick me out of the house has got to be a very patient person. That’s my mom. She’s a very patient lady with a great heart and she’s really good with people.”