For the last three decades, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have dominated the headlines in American motorsports starting on the short tracks of Indiana in the early 1990s before both climbed to the pinnacle of the racing world in NASCAR.
They’ve combined for 1,418 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts, 142 wins, 96 poles, 37,751 laps led and seven championships, not to mention countless open-wheel victories and titles, as well as success in other NASCAR series.
Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway marks the final start together for Gordon, whose substitution role for Dale Earnhardt Jr. ends this weekend, and Stewart, whose Sprint Cup career concludes at season’s end. For one final race, fans will see two of the drivers whose careers blazed the path for open-wheel drivers into NASCAR and raised the sport to unprecedented popularity.
Or at least it is supposed to be.
“Keep in mind we thought we were doing this last year,” Stewart said with a laugh, referring to Gordon’s 2015 retirement tour before this season’s unexpected call to duty as a substitute driver. “Who knows, (Gordon) might be around here 10 more years at the rate he is going.”
Joking aside, Stewart will talk at length about the admiration and respect he has for Gordon, as well as the friendship developed between the two over the years. His actions spoke louder than words in July during a late caution in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when he paid Gordon the ultimate compliment.
Stewart came over the team radio and asked if spotter Bob Jeffrey would talk with Gordon’s spotter about making a final lap together after the checkered flag fell. The impromptu lap in front of the home-state fans on their favorite racetrack became one of the signature moments of the 2016 season and NASCAR history.
“I can say that just ranks in the top-three coolest moments of my 18 years in this series,” Stewart said after the race. “To share that moment with Jeff here at Indianapolis – I don’t know, I don’t even have the words for it. That is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.”Months later, the moment brings back good memories.
“The Indy deal was special because it was Indy,” Stewart said. “He lived in Pittsboro (Indiana) – he wasn’t born there – a lot of his life. He was 20 minutes away from Indy and I was 40 minutes away (in Columbus, Indiana.) That was a special place to us and special we could share that moment.’”
Stewart, however, won’t be in the mood to reminisce about Gordon or plan any comemorative moments this weekend at Martinsville. Instead, he’s trying to use his final four races to earn his 50th career victory, as well as secure 13th place in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs after he fell just short of advancing to the Round of 12. A 32nd-place finish at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway last weekend dropped him to 14th in the points, 14 behind 13th-place Kyle Larsen.
After missing the first eight races because of an offseason injury, Stewart has enjoyed a successful final season in Sprint Cup racing, posting five top-five finishes and eight top-10s in 24 races, including a June victory at Sonoma (Calif.) International Raceway.
“It’s been fun to meet people at the racetrack who’ve come to the track because this is our final year,” Stewart said. “It kind of validates why we did what we did. It’s been fun. I still wish we were in the middle of the Chase but, since we aren’t, I guess the most positive thing is to have fun these last few weeks, then do everything we can to win a race or as many as we can before it’s over and have fun. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
The flat, half-mile, paperclip-shaped track in Martinsville could be the place Stewart earns the milestone victory. He owns three wins, 10 top-fives and 17 top-10s and has led a total of 1,234 laps in his 33 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville. His average Martinsville start is 12.7, his average finish is 13.7, and he has a lap-completion rate of 96.7 percent. He missed the April race while he was recovering from injuries suffered in an offseason accident.
Sunday might be an end of an era, but maybe in their final Sprint Cup race together after 18 years of racing, there’s time to create another memory or two.
|TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is the challenge of Martinsville?
“Nowadays, our cars drive so well you just race wide open. It’s not as important to be a smart racecar driver as it is to be fast. The thing about Martinsville is, no matter what happens, tire wear is still a factor. You have to be smart, you have to take care of your tires. That’s what I like about it now. Those tracks are becoming a minority of the tracks we go to. You don’t have to take care of your tires hardly at all any more at the majority of the tracks we go to. Martinsville is still one of those tracks where you still have to be smart and take care of your car.”
What is short-track etiquette?
“I’m finding the longer I am here, the definition is different for everybody. When I started in the sport, you had Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and a host of guys who had a pretty strict etiquette and you played by the rules. If you didn’t, when you were sitting there crashed against the wall, you had plenty of time to think about what you did wrong. Now you see guys do things, especially at Martinsville, that they don’t normally do anywhere else. You fight to get to the bottom of the racetrack because you have to. You just can’t run that second groove. You see them making really sketchy moves to get down as soon as they can.”
Was your 2011 win at Martinsville pivotal to winning your third title?
“I remember when I got out of the car after the race and finally got done with the media and photos, we went back to the bus and I remember thinking, ‘This is our championship to win. They are going to have to take it away from us.’ I don’t remember if we were third or fourth in the points at the time, but I remember that moment being the moment I thought, ‘This is ours and they are going to have to take it away from us, now.’”
|Haas Automation Team Report
Round 33 of 36 – Goody’s Fast Relief 500 – Martinsville
|Car No. 14: Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing
Teammates: Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Busch Light Chevrolet SS
Danica Patrick, No. 10 Nature’s Bakery Chevrolet SS
Kurt Busch, No. 41 State Water Heaters Chevrolet SS
At Track PR Contact: Drew Brown with True Speed Communication (704-498-7596 or Drew.Brown@TrueSpeedCommunication.com)
|Primary Team Members:
Driver: Tony Stewart
Residence: Columbus, Indiana
Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz
Hometown: Lehighton, Pennsylvania
Car Chief: Jerry Cook
Hometown: Toledo, Ohio
Engine Specialist: David McClure
Hometown: Sacramento, California
Engine Builder: Hendrick Motorsports
Headquarters: Concord, North Carolina
Spotter: Bob Jeffrey
Hometown: Bristol, Tennessee
|Over-The-Wall Crew Members:
Front Tire Changer: Ira Jo Hussey
Hometown: Manchester, New Hampshire
Front Tire Carrier: Brett Morrell
Hometown: Windham, Maine
Rear Tire Changer: Chris McMullen
Hometown: Canton, Michigan
Rear Tire Carrier: Josh Sobecki
Hometown: New Kensington, Pennsylvania
Gas Man: James “Ace” Keener
Hometown: Fortuna, California
Jackman: Getty Cavitt
Hometown: Owensboro, Kentucky
Windshield: Justin Peiffer
Hometown: Lebanon, Pennsylvania
|Road Crew Members:
Truck Drivers: William “Stump” Lewis and Rob Fink
Hometown: Linkwood, Maryland and Baltimore, Maryland, respectively.
Engineers: Lee Deese and Chris Chidgey.
Hometown: Rockingham, North Carolina and Gainesville, Florida, respectively.
Mechanic: Tony Silvestri
Hometown: Sylvania, Ohio
Tire Specialist: Russell Simpson
Hometown: Medford, New York
Shock Specialist: Dave Hansen
Hometown: York, Maine
Pit Support/Fuel Runner: Daniel Coffey
Hometown: Granite Falls, North Carolina
|This car first turned its wheels on a racetrack in 2012 during a test session Sept. 4 to 5 at the Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wisconsin, which prepared Chassis No. 14-742 for its debut in the Sept. 23 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. There, the car qualified third and led 38 laps before finishing seventh. Chassis No. 14-742 returned to another relatively flat mile oval when it made its second career start in the penultimate race of the 2012 season at Phoenix International Raceway. After qualifying ninth, a pit-road miscue and a lap-282 spin conspired for a 19th-place finish. With a new 2013 Chevrolet SS body, Chassis No. 14-742 returned in February for its third career start at Phoenix, where it had a solid outing, qualifying sixth and finishing eighth. With the exception of a test June 25 to 26 at New Hampshire, the car sat idle for the remainder of the 2013 season. Chassis No. 14-742 reprised its testing regimen in 2014 with tests Jan. 30 and 31at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway and Feb. 6 at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Georgia. The March 2014 race at Martinsville marked Chassis No. 14-742’s first start in more than a year and its fourth overall. The run, however, was a quiet 17th-place effort. The car returned in October to Martinsville, where in just its second start of 2014 it qualified fourth and led 18 laps before finishing fourth. Chassis No. 14-742 returned to Martinsville in March for its first start of 2015. It began well, with Stewart qualifying sixth and hovering near the top-10 for much of the race. A late-race bid for track position allowed Stewart to lead the field to green on a lap-467 restart, whereupon Stewart paced the field for a total of eight laps before those with fresher tires began motoring past him. Stewart gamely made each driver work for the position, but a needed caution period never materialized. The race went green to the finish and Stewart dropped to 20th by the time the checkered flag waved. Stewart hoped to race this car at Martinsville in the fall, but an accident in Saturday practice forced him to a backup car. Brian Vickers filled in for an injured Stewart at Martinsville in April 2016, driving this chassis to a seventh-place finish.
|• Sunday’s race marks Stewart’s 615th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start and his 34th Sprint Cup start at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
• Stewart has career totals of 49 wins, 15 poles, 187 top-five finishes, 308 top-10s and 12,815 laps led in 614 Sprint Cup races.
His most recent Sprint Cup win came June 26 at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway.
His last Sprint Cup pole came April 5, 2014 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
Stewart missed the final 15 races of the 2013 season, three races in 2014 and the first eight races in 2016.
• Stewart has three wins, 10 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s and has led a total of 1,234 laps in his 33 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville. His average Martinsville start is 12.7, his average finish is 13.7, and he has a lap-completion rate of 96.7 percent.
• Stewart has scored five top-fives and eight top-10s in 24 races he’s entered in 2016.
• Stewart scored his first career Sprint Cup pole at Martinsville in just his eighth career start. His lap of 19.875 seconds at 95.275 mph on April 16, 1999 set a track record. Stewart is one of just three drivers to have earned their first career Sprint Cup pole at Martinsville, the others being Kenny Wallace (April 20, 1997) and Scott Riggs (April 10, 2005).
• When Stewart earned his second Sprint Cup pole at Martinsville on Sept. 29, 2000, he broke his own track qualifying record with a time of 19.855 seconds at 95.371 mph.
• Stewart’s last Martinsville pole came in October 2005. There, Stewart set the track record yet again with a time of 19.306 seconds at an average speed of 98.083 mph.
• In Stewart’s first Sprint Cup win at Martinsville in October 2000, he started from the pole and led three times for 179 laps.
• Stewart led five times for a race-high 288 laps at Martinsville in April 2006 to take his first win of the 2006 season, his second at Martinsville and the 25th of his career. Stewart went on to record four other victories in 2006.
• Stewart led three times for 14 laps at Martinsville in October 2011 to capture his third win in seven races, his third at Martinsville and the 42nd of his career. It proved to be a pivotal victory as Stewart climbed to second in points, eight behind series leader Carl Edwards, prompting Stewart to memorably say in a live victory lane interview that aired on network television, “Carl Edwards had better be really worried. That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.” Stewart went on to win the championship three races later in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!