INDIANAPOLIS — In 13½ years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Tony Stewart has gained a reputation as a fierce competitor who battles through traffic to the front of the pack on race day.
Qualifying high for those races has been another matter.
While the Columbus native ranks 14th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list with 47, he is tied for 49th with 13 career poles. This year, he has three wins, but no poles.
“He’s definitely good in traffic,” said Jeff Mendering, Stewart’s car chief. “I think for our team, we put a lot more effort in practice into a race than we do qualifying. I think that probably sets us back just a little bit in qualifying.”
Stewart had a lackluster qualifying session Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He qualified 28th for today’s Brickyard 400 with a fast lap of 178.862 mph. Denny Hamlin won the pole with a 182.763 lap.
“Terrible,” Stewart said. “I should have been on the gas on the exit, and tried to knock the fence down.
Instead of being on the gas late exit, I’m off the gas, and that doesn’t work here.”
“We were too tight,” Mendering said. “The back tightened up on us, and we under-adjusted a little bit from what we had in practice.”
Stewart, who had the 14th-best practice time Saturday morning, qualified in temperatures in the low 80s Saturday afternoon.
“The time of day is actually the right time of day to do it,” Stewart said. “It’s pretty much the same all the way across as far as temperature, so it’s probably better than we normally have as far as early Saturday morning qualifying. This is the hottest part of the day that we ran in, and everybody ran in it. Everybody is planning for it, so it’s not that it’s treacherous or anything.
“You just have to guess right.”
If Stewart doesn’t make a habit of qualifying high, he does get into fields. He’s made 483 consecutive starts. But his success in races has far surpassed his success in qualifying.
“He has a good knack, obviously, for feeling the race car, and the more opportunities you have with that, the better you have an opportunity to figure it out,” Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman said.
“Guys that are better racers than qualifiers generally have a lot of discipline and maybe more of a refuse-to-lose as a team spirit,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think we both feel that way, and if I can join a guy like him in anything, I’m doing all right.”
Trevor Bayne said a car’s setup plays a big role in qualifying.
“It’s really what you look for in a car,” Bayne said. “Some of these guys are going out here and getting the car right for one lap. Other guys are good at knowing exactly what the car needs for the long run, and Tony is one of those guys that knows what it is to be good in the race, which is the most important part.
“(Qualifying) is one lap, and only one guy gets a trophy for it,” Bayne said. “When you go to the race, one guy gets the trophy, but you have to put a whole race together, and that’s what Tony’s good at.”
Joey Logano, who qualified third Saturday, said qualifying is tough.
“It’s just tricky to figure out where you want to be on the race track and carrying the right speed, so when you have that much time out of a race car and you get back in it, to hit it right on, it’s tricky,” Logano said.
Stewart said starting 28th today will provide a challenge to capturing his third Brickyard 400 victory.
He previously won in 2005 and 2007.
“Normally, if you’re in the middle of the pack, it’s because your car’s not driving very good,” Stewart said. “So it’s going to be a long day (today).”
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