Stewart is finishing his racing career in style

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — Tony Stewart will be making his final run at Michigan International Speedway in this weekend’s Pure Michigan 400 in what he hopes will be the 50th victory in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career.

Stewart, 45, a three-time Sprint Cup champion, has enjoyed his final go-round on the circuit after missing the start of the season because of a broken back suffered in a dune buggy accident near San Diego in late January.

Stewart has bounced back after missing the first eight races because of the injury, earning a win on the road course at Sonoma in June to end an 84-race winless streak while also climbing in the top 30 in points the following race at Daytona.

Drivers earning spots in The Chase need to win at least one race and finish in the top 30 in the standings to lock in one of the 16 spots and have the chance to battle it out for the championship during the final 10 races of the season. The race at MIS is among the final three races before the Chase begins.

“I feel like in the next few weeks we will need to continue to build on what we’ve built up to this point,” said Stewart who has scored the fifth-most points of any driver in the last 10 races. “If I felt like we were a contender to win every race right now, then maybe I would want the Chase to begin now. But, we need to gain a little bit before the Chase starts. We are going to make good use of the next three races.”

Stewart has seven top-10 finishes in his last 15 races in his No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet as car/owner for Stewart-Haas Racing, finishing seventh in the June race at MIS.

Stewart enjoys racing at MIS, winning on the two-mile superspeedway in the June 2000 race, finishing in the top-5 a dozen times.

“With the repave a couple of years ago, it’s just lightning fast,” Stewart said. “The groove is getting wider and wider so it’s easier to race there. It’s definitely just a fast, fast racetrack.

“We talk about momentum. Momentum is a huge deal there.”

You carry so much speed to the turns, and the corners are so long and so round, you have to be very smooth there. If you over drive the entry a little bit too much the amount of time it takes to get the front end of the car caught up and get it to where you can get back on the gas, you lose so much time there. With the corners being so big and so sweeping, having the flexibility to change your entry into the corner really pays off there, like two-tenths (of a second) better. On a track that size, it’s a lot of distance for that short of time.”

Stewart was encouraged by the rules change package put in for the June race to further reduce downforce and sideforce to allow cars to get better runs for passing opportunities. The spoiler was shortened an inch from 3.5 inches to 2.5 inches and the splitter reduced from five inches to two leading to 1500 pounds of downforce from 2,700 last year and 2,000 at the start of this season.

“I loved the new downforce package that we raced there in June,” Stewart said. “I absolutely loved it. We got to drive the cars. We got to make a difference in the car and manipulate things. That is what we have all been wanting. The aero package is starting to catch up now.”

Stewart competed in IndyCars 20 years ago, running the Indianapolis 500 for car owner John Menard and running in the Indy Racing League before moving on to NASCAR in 1999. He has won titles in Indy, midget, sprint and USAC Silver Crown cars.

Stewart is the lone driver in the Sprint Cup series to win championships under the old points system and the Chase playoff format. He won the then-Winston Cup title for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2002 under the old points system, the then-Nextel Cup championship for Gibbs under the Chase format in 2005 and as a car/owner while driving for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2011.

Stewart also won a Sprint Car championship as team owner of Kevin Harvick in 2014. When Harvick won at Bristol this past Sunday, the two celebrated with tandem burnouts. Harvick has to be considered a frontrunner to win the series title with a pair of wins and a series-high 18 top-10 finishes. Harvick has finished second at MIS in five of the last seven races, including a runnerup spot last August. He finished fifth in June.

Stewart has reason to feel good about his final season, especially since a Chase spot seemed out of the question with his injury, along with winless seasons in 2014 and ’15.

Stewart is obviously focused on MIS and the rest of the season, but still has thoughts on his future is in the back of his mind.

“I haven’t really thought much about it,” said Stewart. “We haven’t planned 2017 yet. I know I’ll have the freedom to do what I want to do whether that’s racing a dirt car or a sports car or anything in between. I look at this like it’s the beginning of the second half of my driving career. I’m just ready to do different things.

“This is a grueling schedule. Anybody who thinks this is an easy job is fooling themselves. There are still people who literally think all we do is show up on Friday and race through Sunday and we have four days off during the week. I can promise you my role with Stewart-Haas is so much deeper than that. It’s a 12 month a year job.

“I still love what I do. I still love the sport. That’s why I’m excited to be an owner in this series, because I get to do everything I’m doing, not just driving the car. So that part gives me enough flexibility to do some of the other things that I want to do. It’s just the right time for us.”