No. 14 Haas Automation Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart has done just about everything there is to do in motorsports. He’s won three NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, raced in nearly every open-wheel series in America, and has presided as a championship team owner and as a top-notch track owner. This weekend at Watkins (N.Y.) Glen International, he’ll face something he’s never encountered in 40 plus years of racing.
“I’ve never been to a road course that has been repaved,” Stewart said. “So it’s a first time for me.”
Stewart is referring to the $12 million offseason repaving project of the 2.45-mile Watkins Glen road course unveiled to some drivers at a Goodyear tire test last week. In addition to the resurfacing of the racetrack, workers also poured new concrete on pit road, completed electrical work, installed concrete rumble strips in the turns, and finished grading and grassing along the track’s perimeter.
Last week, Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) teammate Kurt Busch and the No. 41 team for SHR tested at the high-speed road course built in 1956 and was last repaved in 1989. NASCAR began racing on the track’s “short course” layout in 1986.
“I’m curious to talk with Kurt (Busch) and see what he thought about the test there,” Stewart said. “I know he said the curbs were quite a bit different. I’m going to pick his brain this week. I’m not too worried about it. I know they (curbs) are in the same place they’ve always been. The best we ran there is when we didn’t have to use the curbs. If you get your car right, you shouldn’t have to use them too much. I think the bus stop is the only section of the racetrack where you really rely on the curbs. If it’s different, then we’ll just have to sort it out.”
Few drivers have ever mastered getting around Watkins Glen as well as Stewart. He owns five wins there – the most of any driver – seven top-two finishes, 10 top-10s, and has led 225 laps in his 15 career Sprint Cup starts at The Glen. His average Watkins Glen start is 6.1, his average finish is 10.3, and he has a lap-completion rate of 97.5 percent.
Stewart thinks the new pavement at Watkins Glen will make it a very different racetrack on which to drive.
“Because of the repaving, there will be more grip everywhere,” he said. “Braking zones have more grip, getting in the gas has more grip, cornering has more grip. Anytime there is more grip, it’s harder to pass. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Sunday marks Stewart’s final NASCAR appearance at Watkins Glen and final road-course race of his Sprint Cup career. He will go down in history as one of the sport’s greatest on road courses. Even though Watkins Glen and Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway are the only two road-course tracks during the 36-race regular season, Stewart has earned eight wins in 33 career Sprint Cup road-course races. Stewart’s win tally includes Sonoma in 2001, Watkins Glen in 2002 and 2004, Sonoma and Watkins Glen in 2005, and Watkins Glen in 2007 and 2009. His most recent victory came at Sonoma on June 26 when he led the final 22 laps to earn his 49th career victory.
Stewart is also focusing on the big picture. There are only five races left before the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs and his crew chief Mike Bugarewicz-led No. 14 team is on quite a roll as the series visits Western New York. Stewart scored a fifth-place finish Monday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, marking his fourth top-five in the last six races. He has scored the third-most points in the last five races, second most points in the last seven and 10th-most in the last 10.
Stewart missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident. Brian Vickers and Ty Dillon filled in during his absence, but Stewart’s first race in 2016 didn’t occur until April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. With the Sonoma victory and what appears to be a secure spot in the top-30, Stewart said his team has work to do in the five remaining regular-season 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,” he said. “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 five races.”