KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – With less than two weeks before Election Day, campaigns are on high alert for an “October Surprise,” where a calculated political maneuver designed to create news coverage influences the outcome of an election.
While Tony Stewart didn’t run for office last year, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing delivered an October Surprise of his own.
In last year’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Stewart rallied from an unscheduled pit stop that left him 20th with less than 85 laps remaining to take the lead from five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go. Stewart won, and in doing so, climbed to second in the championship point standings, eight behind then leader Carl Edwards, prompting Stewart to say to a live network TV audience, “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.
The rhetorical roundhouses and blitzkrieg of bravado that accompanies modern-day politics ensures that candidates use every tool in their toolbox to emerge victorious once all the ballots are counted. Stewart did just that at Martinsville, outfoxing his foes on the racetrack and then delivering a discourse that made everyone take notice. And when all the points were tallied after Homestead, it was Stewart on top for the third time in his career.
Stewart’s October Surprise served notice to all that he was determined a grab a third Sprint Cup trophy to place alongside the ones he earned in 2002 and 2005. And his win at Martinsville was indeed a surprise, for in Stewart’s three previous starts at the .526-mile oval, he finished 26th, 24th and 34th. And while Stewart struggled at the paperclip-shaped bullring, two drivers dominated – Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Prior to last year’s TUMS Fast Relief 500, Johnson and Hamlin combined to win nine of the previous 10 races, with Johnson securing five of those wins and Hamlin grabbing the other four.
Since winning at Martinsville in April 2006, Stewart was resigned to being a spectator as Johnson and Hamlin turned Martinsville into their personal playground. That is until last October, where Stewart set in motion his epic championship charge.
While Stewart enters this year’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 in a less powerful position – seventh in points, 47 behind leader Brad Keselowski – he is still powerful at Martinsville. In addition to being the race’s defending winner, his Stewart-Haas Racing team owns the last two wins at Martinsville, as teammate Ryan Newman won in the series’ most recent trip there in April while Stewart finished a solid seventh.
There is a new championship battle in 2012, with conventional wisdom saying that Stewart and anyone else outside the top-five in points are out of title contention. But conventional wisdom, like political polls, is subject to change, and all it takes is an October Surprise.
With four races to go, is there anything your team is specifically working on at the race shop to make you better? “I hope not, because if they’re working extra hard to do something, it’s something they should’ve been doing all along. This sport is so hard and so technical to begin with that you can’t go into each week not giving 100 percent. And you’re not going to get more than that. You’re only going to get 100 percent out of each person, and if they’re not doing that, there’s plenty of guys out there that will work that hard. But I feel like our guys have done a great job of working hard and keeping the morale of the team up. Our guys and our attitude in our shop is very, very positive right now. We have a really strong group of true racers who have been involved with the team – guys who have been involved with racing for a long time in different series. They’re really keen and savvy when it comes to keeping their morale high and realizing that one bad week doesn’t take us out of it until they say we’re mathematically out. I feel like they’ve been giving 100 percent all along.”
Your win last October at Martinsville was impressive, mainly because of how you made that late-race pass on the outside of Jimmie Johnson. How did you do it? “I don’t think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside, so just determination. We didn’t have the best racecar that day, by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew to get it as good as they could get it. I was also the only guy who didn’t get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that.”
What was going through your mind on that final restart? “To be honest, I was not excited about starting second there on the outside. I would’ve rather restarted third, but Jeff (Gordon) got to us and I hit the curb off of (turn) four before the restart. Jeff got underneath us going into (turn) one, and I ran that second lane and pulled two car lengths on him, and said, ‘Wow, this lane has a little bit more grip than I thought it had up there.’ The key was just getting into (turn) one beside him and not letting him run up the racetrack and holding him tight and letting myself have the opportunity to at least get through there.”
What was it like to get that win? “There are two places where when you take the lead, you absolutely know it. It’s Bristol and Martinsville. To pass Jimmie Johnson on the outside with two laps to go and to watch the crowd on the backstretch, then watch them on the frontstretch when we cleared him, you swear people are going to fall onto the racetrack. You feel that energy. You sense that. It’s not that you need extra motivation, but it’s cool to know you have that kind of support. It’s just that extra drive that gets you the rest of the way that last lap. It’s cool.”
During one point of that race, you were nearly lapped by Denny Hamlin and you had to fight him lap after lap while running the outside lane in order to stay on the lead lap. How much did that mid-race battle with Hamlin play into your victory? “I was reminded by my crew chief that morning, I was reminded by my spotter that morning, and I was reminded before the race by many crew members to not be so nice, which I know sounds odd of me. But that still meant racing guys with respect. You race these guys with respect and they’re going to race you back with respect.
“Could Jimmie (Johnson) just hauled it off in the corner, blown the corner to try to take us down? Absolutely. He could have done that to anybody. He didn’t do that to us. We have that level of respect.
“At one point in the race, I messed up and got underneath the ‘43’ car (A.J. Allmendinger), probably the big bonehead move of my race. I got underneath him in a spot where he was already coming down. I screwed up, he got sideways. I just checked up and let him have his spot back. I never saw anybody give anybody a spot back in a situation like that. It wasn’t his fault. I think later after that I got back by the ‘43’ car and instead of dumping me like the other guys were doing to each other, I think he knew I gave him that spot back because he knew I made a mistake. It just shows the respect that some guys did have for each other even though there was a lot of disrespect amongst a lot of guys out there.”
Does short-track racing, particularly around Martinsville’s tight confines, bring out the worst in drivers because there’s more opportunity? “I used to be as guilty of it and as bad as anybody about taking a cheap shot at guys early. But you realize that it’s not about the two guys driving the cars out there as much as there’s a bunch of crew guys who spend a lot of hours and put a lot of heart and soul into what we have as a product each week with these racecars, and there’s a car owner who spends a lot of money. I think at times we all forget about that. You let a guy get his butt kicked once or twice, he’ll quit doing stupid stuff like that.”
Has becoming a car owner changed your outlook? “Not necessarily. I mean, when Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., was here and Dale Jarrett, when I started, you just didn’t do that because that guy would come grab you, pull you out of the car at the end of the practice session, rip your head off talking to you about it, and intimidate you into understanding why you didn’t do that. Now there’s nothing. You can go yell at a guy. What does it accomplish? Does it make anybody understand what the other guy was thinking or saying? Two guys yell at each other, walk away, and nothing was different than before it happened. There’s nothing different to make these guys do anything other than what’s in their head.
“Even as a car owner now, I remember Joe Gibbs sitting me down and saying, ‘There’s other guys working on these things, too. You knock the nose off of it after a race because you’re mad at somebody, all of a sudden you created a lot more work for these guys.’ Maybe the crew guys need to get mad at their drivers when we do something stupid. Maybe the crew guys ought to pull the drivers back in the shop and make them fix it when they do it. I would be screwed because I can’t do it. I can barely put something that bolts together, together.”