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Sprint Cup - Stewart Race Preview Phoenix

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

KANNAPOLIS, Nov. 8, 2012: The bluff overlooking turns three and four of Phoenix International Raceway is Monument Hill, which way back in 1864 was the geographical starting point for what became the State of Arizona in 1912.

Phoenix could also be considered the starting point of Tony Stewart’s professional racing career. In his first-ever race at the desert mile, Stewart drove a USAC Silver Crown car that had team owners in the IZOD IndyCar Series and in NASCAR asking, “Who is this kid?”

The event was the famed Copper World Classic and the season-opener for USAC’s Silver Crown division. Stewart qualified second to Davey Hamilton – a former IndyCar veteran – and led 31 of the 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss – the 2003 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. The $3,500 payday for his second-place effort made eight-hour days at $5 an hour in the cold confines of the machine shop where Stewart worked in Columbus, Ind., seem unnecessary. Packing the rest of the 1993 season with Silver Crown, Sprint and Midget races across the nation, Stewart’s quick ascent up the racing ladder began.

Almost three years later, Phoenix again served as another rung on that ladder.

With his USAC “Triple Crown” championship firmly in hand, Stewart tested A.J. Foyt’s Indy car at Phoenix in October 1995. For five days Stewart lapped the Phoenix oval under the dutiful watch of the four-time Indianapolis 500 champion.

A month later, Foyt’s crew needed someone to drive their car at Texas World Speedway in College Station for a TV commercial. While it was a long way from an actual race, the 24 year-old Stewart took the invite as a positive measure of Foyt’s belief in him. Stewart’s instincts were right on, because just after having dinner at Foyt’s Texas ranch, Foyt offered Stewart a ride in the IndyCar Series for 1996.

The IndyCar Series was still in its infancy, so the 1996 season Foyt offered Stewart amounted to Disney World in January, Phoenix in March and Indianapolis in May. But Foyt wasn’t the only car owner who was interested in Stewart.

Harry Ranier, a NASCAR team owner who had fielded racecars since 1967 and recorded 24 wins, was looking to get back into ownership after selling his team to Robert Yates at the conclusion of the 1988 season. Ranier’s second attempt at NASCAR team ownership came in November 1995 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the NASCAR Nationwide Series season finale. Stewart was his driver.

The start-up team didn’t make the race, but Stewart had a handshake agreement with Ranier to run a handful of Nationwide Series races in 1996. Foyt didn’t like the idea of sharing his driver with another owner, and told Stewart as much. But Stewart wasn’t comfortable in backing out of his deal with Ranier, so he turned down Foyt’s offer.

“What aspiring driver turns down an offer from A.J. Foyt?” asked many in the motorsports community. But for Stewart, it was a matter of principle. Today, few can knock Stewart’s thought process.

The nine Nationwide Series races he ran for Ranier turned heads in the stock car world, one of which belonged to Joe Gibbs. The three-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins hired Stewart to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 1997. Twenty-seven Nationwide Series races and two years later, Stewart was in Sprint Cup. And at Phoenix – the track that gave him his start in professional motorsports – Stewart earned his second career Sprint Cup victory by beating Mark Martin to the finish line by more than two seconds in the 1999 Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500k.

Another monumental run came 12 years later. It wasn’t a win, but a third-place finish that was just as important as a win, if not more.

It was last November’s Sprint Cup race at Phoenix, where Stewart led five times for a race-high 160 laps behind the wheel of his No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet. His third-place effort put him in position to secure his third Sprint Cup title a week later in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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 championship leader Carl 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.

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, and with another stout Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy in his hands, Stewart plans to add to that history in Sunday’s AdvoCare 500k.

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

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.”

Last November was the debut of the “new” Phoenix, as it was repaved with variable banking in all four turns. 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.”