DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., – By definition, a number is a mathematical object used to count, label and measure. Through the years, individual numbers have come to carry values significant in ways other than just math.
Take the number seven, for example. Often times referred to as being lucky, the number carries with it a greater value than just being a unit of measurement. In fact, a 13th century Jewish scholar named Nachmanides believed the number seven to be the number of the natural world given that there are seven days in a week, seven notes on a musical scale and seven directions.
Tony Stewart plans to add to the number seven’s significance in the DRIVE4COPD 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race Saturday at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
Before attempting to earn his first career Daytona 500 victory on Sunday, Stewart will look to score his seventh win in the annual season opener for the Nationwide Series on Saturday. The victory would place Stewart in a tie with the legendary Dale Earnhardt for the most wins in the Nationwide Series at Daytona. If there is any sort of validity to the notion of lucky numbers or charms, then Stewart may have a lock on scoring that seventh win come Saturday.
Riding shotgun with Stewart will be Nabisco’s Ritz Crackers brand. It marks the second time the buttery-tasting snack has been the primary sponsor for Stewart in the 300-mile race at Daytona, the last time being the 2010 event which Stewart won after starting 32nd. Stewart’s relationship with Nabisco stretches back to 2010 when the company became a partner of Stewart and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team he co-owns with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas – Stewart-Haas Racing. The Oreo Cookie and Ritz Cracker brands are Stewart-Haas Racing’s official cookie and cracker.
What makes this sponsorship ironic for this year’s event is the fact that there are seven holes in a Ritz Cracker. Combining this karmic sponsorship fact along with Stewart’s Nationwide Series record at Daytona may just seal the deal for Stewart to nab that seventh Nationwide Series win at Daytona.
Stewart earned the first of his six Nationwide Series wins at Daytona in 2005, which also happened to be his first career win in the Nationwide Series. He has gone on to score an additional nine victories to bring his career totals in the series to 10 wins, 29 top-five and 40 top-10s in 93 starts. Much of that success has come at Daytona, despite only 13 Nationwide Series starts at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
In those 13 starts, Stewart has led 206 laps while scoring six wins, seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes in addition to earning a lap completion rate of 99.1 percent. He has an average starting position of 15.8 and average finish of 7.9. Stewart’s six wins in 13 starts is good enough for a win rate of 46.2 percent.
The good news doesn’t stop there.
Stewart won four straight DRIVE4COPD 300s between 2008 and 2011 – a feat he accomplished driving for three different car owners, winning with Joe Gibbs in 2008, Rick Hendrick in 2009 and Kevin Harvick in 2010 and 2011. He hopes to add another win with yet another car owner via Richard Childress and the No. 33 Ritz Cracker/Oreo team on Saturday. It will mark just the third time Stewart has driven for Childress, as Stewart drove for the veteran team owner in last year’s DRIVE4COPD 300 where Stewart led 22 laps before finishing seventh, and in the May 2004 Nationwide Series race in Fontana, Calif., where Stewart finished second.
Nachmanides belief that seven is the number of the natural world seems perfectly natural to Stewart, who is intent on earning his seventh Nationwide Series win at Daytona with the ubiquitous seven-holed Ritz Cracker emblazoned on the hood of his No. 33 Chevrolet Camaro.
Tony Stewart, Driver of the No. 33 Ritz Crackers/Oreo NASCAR Nationwide Series Chevrolet Camaro at Daytona
You have the opportunity to tie Dale Earnhardt for the most wins in the Nationwide Series at Daytona with seven. How special would that be for you? “It’s cool just to be even close to him. Whether we ever get another win and catch his mark or even surpass him, that’s still a record that’s pretty remarkable here at Daytona. That’s a pretty cool feeling to know we’ve closed in on something he’s done here. To me, this was his playground. You just watched him play with the guys here. He was the best at this place. To even be remotely close to him in the record books, in anything here at Daytona, is very humbling.”
You’ve won the season-opening Nationwide Series race six times. How nice is it to start the year with a win, and how much confidence does it give you going into the Daytona 500? “The good thing is I’m probably the happiest guy going into the Daytona 500 if we get a win on Saturday. It shows that we can win, and it’s just a matter of whether the cards play out for you on Sunday. It’s always a bonus when you can win on Saturday before going into the biggest race of the year on Sunday. Getting a Nationwide win there, that’s how you like to go to bed the night before the Daytona 500, knowing that you’ve got that trophy sitting out there on your desk from what you did Saturday afternoon.”
It’s difficult to win one race at Daytona, let alone six, and four in a row for that matter. How have you done it? “Restrictor-plate races at Daytona are always a wild-card race. You never know who’s going to win. We were fortunate enough to win one and then back it up the next year. To do it back-to-back-to-back-to-back is something we’re really proud of. We’ve won six out of the last eight here, and none of them have been the same. It’s been different cars, different teams, different pavement. There wasn’t one of the six in that scenario that have been even remotely close to the same. To me, that’s the part that’s ironic. You think, ‘Man, the scenario has to double up, eventually.’ Six wins here and none of them have been alike. It really shows that you can’t predict what’s going to happen. It’s impossible to even try to do that.”
What makes you so successful at Daytona, particularly in the season-opening Nationwide Series race? “I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of luck there. A lot of it has just been being at the right place at the right time, and making calls that were a little edgy on pit strategy to put ourselves in position at the end. I’ve had great cars to drive every time there, and great partners like Ritz and Oreo that have supported our effort. We’ve just been one of those guys everybody knows that when we’re out there, we’re a threat in that division. So when it comes to the end of it, we’ve had some pretty good help.”
In order to win a restrictor-plate race, you’ve got to have drafting help. How do you get that help? “I think it’s more a situation of guys finding the fast cars, and you finding the guys you know are going to go with you because they know you’re quick. If they go with you, they’re going to get you to the front, which is going to get them to the front. It’s kind of ‘help me, help you.’”
Are there certain guys you’ve worked with at restrictor-plate races in the past who you know you’re going to draft with? “You have a list of guys you know you’re drafting with, and then there’s another list of guys you’re alright with, and there’s another list of guys you don’t want to be around. So you always know who the guys are you want to be with and who you’d rather not see anywhere near you.”
You’re used to racing in the Sprint Cup Series. How does the style of racing in the Nationwide Series differ from the Sprint Cup Series? “You’re definitely more selective about who you draft with. Part of the Nationwide race last year, we didn’t even pick a partner. We ran the first half of the race by ourselves and there were enough groups in front of us that we could stay in the draft. Later in the race, as it started sorting out, we found people who either lost a partner at some point or whatever, but it seemed like at the end of the race, there was no trouble in finding a partner to run with. Guys partner up early in the race, but it always seems like you get one or two crashes and guys lose their drafting partner, so it seems there’s always someone to go with. But if you can find somebody early that you like and stay hooked up with them throughout the race, that’s the most advantageous position to be in. It’s been hairy enough the last couple of years that you can run by yourself and still be caught up in a good enough pack to get where you need to be.”
As the Nationwide Series cars evolve, are there nuances you learn each year you run the season-opening race? “Yes. Guys get smarter about what to do with them and they get smarter about how to draft with them. That side of it gets better and better each year and it’s a matter of learning what you can and can’t do. Last year, I never dreamed I could run the first half of the race by myself, but that’s what we did. We never even had a drafting partner. We just would run in the middle of a group of paired-up cars and every time they switched we would just drive back by them because we didn’t have to check up and switch partners. As much as they learn new things, we learn new things too about what we have to do.”
With the Sprint Cup car being so different from the Nationwide Series car, do you have to remind yourself what car you’re in before you hit the track? “You do, but we’re used to that. In my whole career I’ve gone from car to car and they all felt different.”
On that note, as you worked your way up the racing ladder in USAC, you’d drive different cars on different nights, sometimes on asphalt and sometimes on dirt, and you’d only have a handful of laps to figure it out. Have you carried that experience with you to NASCAR, as you seem to adapt very quickly, very successfully? “You’d have three practice laps, maybe, and then it was time to go qualify. You’d do all of practice and then you’d jump from car to car in qualifying and you just had to put down a lap. A lot of times you had to go right away. We still run a wide variety of cars throughout the year, and that keeps you fresh.”
This is the second year you’re running the No. 33 Chevrolet for Richard Childress. What’s it like driving for Childress? “Richard is an icon in our sport and someone I’ve always admired, so I’m always excited to have the opportunity to work with him. I don’t think anyone can think about Daytona and not think about Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt and all they accomplished there together, so it’s definitely an honor to be part of his team at Daytona. Hopefully, I can add to his list of accomplishments there.”
Is it difficult to run just one race with a team that you don’t work with on a regular basis? “It’s a one-off deal, but I’ve worked with this group in the past, so I already have a comfort level and a relationship with the guys. Ernie (Cope, crew chief) and I have worked together in the past, too, so that’s a plus because we’re already familiar with each other. When you look at the team that I’m working with this year, it’s basically the exact same group as last year, so that’s helpful.”