A 41st-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 wasn’t what Tony Stewart had in mind.
But after being knocked to the garage in an early-race wreck and coming back to finish 118 of the 200 laps, the Columbus native will get a chance at a fresh start this weekend at Phoenix. The Subway Fresh Fit 500 begins at 3 p.m. Sunday.
“Daytona is a restrictor-plate race and, unlike Daytona, guys can’t get in a line at Phoenix and go to the front,” Stewart said in a news release. “Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it’s more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can’t help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race.”
Stewart will be competing in his second race with the new Gen-6 car but the first without restrictor plates. He thinks just learning the new car and finding the combination is the biggest challenge.
“We’re starting basically from scratch,” Stewart said. “There are some things that you take away from what we did last year, but any time you have a major change in the body style like we have this year and the rules changes that we’re having, that’s the No. 1 obstacle — trying to figure out what this car likes and dislikes so it gives you a direction.”
Competitors had a chance to drive the new Gen-6 car during last year’s tire test at Phoenix.
“I ran a day-and-a-half at the tire test at Phoenix, and we didn’t even have a steel body car; it was a fiberglass-bodied car,” Stewart said. “I didn’t really notice a lot there. There was probably a bigger understanding of what we got during the one day we had at Charlotte (N.C.) than what we learned at Phoenix.
“The car’s got a lot of downforce,” he said. “It’s a little easier to drive. For a new car to come out in that short amount of time, for it to drive that well, that’s a pretty big feather in NASCAR’s cap to have a car that drives that stable.”
Stewart began racing at Phoenix with a USAC Silver Crown car in 1993. Since then, he’s run USAC midgets, Indy cars, supermodifieds, Nationwide Series cars and now, Sprint Cup cars. He took an immediate liking to the track.
“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,” Stewart said. “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.”
Stewart said his racing career took off more out of fear that he was going to have to get a real job if he wasn’t successful than anything.
“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,” Stewart said. “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,” he said. “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.”
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