Kansas Has Bit Stewart; Stewart Has Bit Kansas
A couple of days before this summer’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart was approached at the end of a press conference and asked if he had a couple minutes to talk about Kansas Speedway.
Stewart’s head slowly turned toward the reporter. His eyes narrowed, the whisker stubble seemed to stand up straighter on his face and Stewart shot back a look that said, “Must we talk about that place?”
Strange behavior from a driver who has won two-ninths of the Sprint Cup races held at the sparkling 1.5-mile tri-oval.
But, in reality, the look was probably to be expected as Kansas has both patted the two-time series champion from Indiana on the back and poked him eye during his yearly autumn visits. Kansas Speedway, for Tony Stewart, has been, well, an interesting place to race.
Stewart, like Kansas Speedway, is a product of America’s Heartland. He was born and
raised in a small town in central Indiana. It was a town, Columbus, where the movers and shakers moved at the Moose Lodge and shook at the Dairy Queen.
It was an area where racing cars was big. The type of racing which people in Kansas and Missouri have a long tradition of enjoying and can easily understand. Open-wheel racing. Sprint cars. USAC. That kind of stuff.
Stewart ran those kinds of cars at places like Belleville, Kan., Knoxville, Iowa and Sedalia, Mo.
In his gruff moods, Stewart will tell you he doesn’t really care where he races these days. He said that over the summer when asked about Chicagoland Speedway.
“I think our sport’s grown nationwide to where it’s not just what it does for the Midwest, it’s across the country what the sport has been able to bring,” he said.
But in his unguarded moods when he chooses to let you have a look inside, with his words
and particularly with his actions – he moved away from the Charlotte, N.C. hub of NASCAR severals ago to return to Columbus – he remains a Midwestern kind of guy.
His beer of choice is Schlitz from Milwaukee (the classic and not the new stuff, he told me last year at Kansas) and his biggest unfulfilled dream is winning the Belleville Nationals in a Midget car.
Stewart likes the state of Kansas so much that he voluntarily walked into the state capitol building in Topeka a couple years back and was not just civil, but complimentary toward some of his least favorite creatures – politicians.
Stewart returns to Kansas this weekend as the defending winner of the track’s Sprint Cup race.
He started fifth, led a couple times for short bursts and then took the lead away from Greg Biffle on lap 238 of the 267-lap Price Chopper 400 and held it to the end.
The victory moved him from fifth place in the Chase to fourth. It moved him to within 67 points of first place.
Afterward, he stole a chair from the media center because somebody during an interview said that Jeff Gordon had sat in it – the theft was, of course, Stewartian wise-crack schtick, but it went over the head of some in the local media there.
It was quite memorable.
But not nearly as much so as his first victory at Kansas.
That one came in 2006. The goofiness of that one went over nobody’s head.
Stewart had a poor qualifying effort to start the weekend and lined up 21st on the starting grid – 20 spots behind polesitter Kasey Kahne.
Stewart, was looking for something good to happen that day but not in desperate need as he had missed the Chase, which, that season included just the top 10 drivers after 26 races.
Much of the race went like his season. A winner just twice heading to Wyandotte County for the Banquet 400 presented by ConAgra Foods, he was not wearing the look of a winner at Kansas.
By the time there were just six laps to go, 12 drivers had led the event and none were named Tony Stewart.
As the laps wore down, the top cars began to pit for fuel under green. Stewart probably should have. Would have if he were in contention for a championship. But he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli gambled and stayed out.
“It was a battle between the driver and the crew chief,” Stewart says. “The crew chief is yelling at you every lap to save fuel, but you’re not slowing down enough and he knows it because he’s looking at the stop watch.”
With five to go, leader Jimmie Johnson pitted and Stewart had the lead. His race then became a matter of putting one eye on the fuel supply and one on the rearview mirror to see how close quicker and less thirsty cars behind him were getting.
“When you’ve got guys behind you, you know you don’t want to give those spots up in case they happen make it on fuel. So, I tried to save as much fuel as I could and still hold guys off.
Stewart described the end of the race like this:
“When we were coming down the backstretch, I asked how many laps we had left and they said, ‘You’re coming to the white (flag).’ Then I saw the needle start bouncing and it wasn’t on zero, but it was down to three pounds and bouncing up and down. “We came down the frontstretch and it started losing pressure when we went into Turn One. Then it caught up for a second, but as soon as we came off turn two, it lost pressure immediately.
“It’s just important to get it kicked out of gear right away and just get down low on the race track and take the shortest distance around. We just coasted around and hoped we had enough of a lead to stay out front.”
At a track where Sprint Cup cars reach top speeds of 185 miles an hour, Stewart crossed the finish line at about 50.
But he crossed it first.
And Stewart’s up and down relationship with Kansas Speedway was up – for the time being, that is, as he would finish 39th and 40th the next too years.
Hey, you’d scowl at questions about Kansas Speedway, too, if that was the way your life played out there.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment