As Tony Stewart prepares to race at Phoenix International Raceway for the last time before he retires as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, he can’t help but be more than a little nostalgic.
Stewart has a long and rich history with the 1-mile track that has stretched over more than two decades and included rides in a wide variety of series. He will race there for the final time as a Cup driver in this Sunday’s Can-Am 500.
“I started racing there in ’93 when I ran a USAC Silver Crown car. And since then, I’ve run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Super Modifieds, XFINITY Series cars and, of course, Sprint Cup cars,” said Stewart, who announced he would retire at the end of this season before it started. “So I’ve logged a bunch of laps there.
"To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it’s the place where my career came full circle.”
Stewart first ran at PIR in the 1993 Copper World Classic, the prestigious season-opening USAC Silver Crown race. He was 21 years old at the time and ended up running second to Mike Bliss, who later went on to win the 2003 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship.
For Stewart, competing in the Copper World Classic was a dream come true — and the opening door to what would become a storied career as a driver that has included three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.
“It was everything. Take what it’s like for us in the Sprint Cup Series to get ready for the Daytona 500; that’s what it was like to come out to Phoenix for the Copper World Classic,” Stewart said. “As soon as the (previous) season was over, everybody got ready and started getting cars built for the Copper Classic. You literally built cars that were basically one-off cars. … You put extra time, extra detail in them. It was the big one, for sure.”
Stewart said it is difficult to choose a favorite story about racing at Phoenix over the years.
“It’s hard because there are so many great moments,” he said.
He recalled battling Ryan Newman in a Super Modified race there early in both of their careers.
"I couldn’t seem to get the car off the corner," Stewart said. "It stumbled a lot but, halfway down the straightway, it would come to life and I could use the draft following Ryan to get caught up. He ended up having an issue with two laps to go and we won the race.”
Later, of course, Stewart and Newman would race with and against each other on the track in the Sprint Cup Series. He said as he moved up the ladder to his current role as driver and co-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing that he literally was driven by one of the oldest and greatest motivators in the world.
“It was more fear than anything that I was going to have to get a real job if I wasn’t successful,” Stewart said.
The native of Columbus, Indiana, has always credited the rabid racing environment in his home state for helping him develop as a versatile driver.
“That’s the great thing about running USAC and being in Indiana, where not only did we have winged sprint cars and non-winged sprint cars, Midgets and Silver Crown cars, we ran on dirt tracks one night and pavement the next. We ran Modifieds and Late Models,” he says. “There were just so many things to drive around there that you learned how to adapt, and you learned how not to have a preconceived notion about how a race car is supposed to feel and drive.
“You learned to read what the car was telling you as far as what it liked and disliked, and learned how to change your driving style accordingly."
He said that he expects that to come into play this weekend at Phoenix, where he said it aways has been a factor.
“At Phoenix, every car we’ve driven there … they all drove differently,” he said. "You just had to adapt to it and learn to read the race car instead of thinking this is what the car I ran last night felt like and it’s supposed to feel like this today. It doesn’t work that way.”
When he was in the IndyCar Series, Stewart and fellow IndyCar driver Arie Luyendyk frequently performed tire tests at the Phoenix track. Stewart believes that helped him when he made the transition to stock cars and won his very first Cup race at PIR in 1999.
“I got to spend a lot of time running around Phoenix,” he says. “I got to know every line around the track that’s ever been run and why it’s been run.”
Now he would like to win at the track one last time. In 26 additional Cup starts since the ’99 win, he has not been able to get back to Victory Lane — although he has come close, finishing second in the spring race in 2006, 2007 and 2009 while racking up a total of eight top-five and 12 top-10 finishes at PIR. He missed the spring race at Phoenix this year, one of eight he sat out at the beginning of this season while recovering from an off-season back injury.
He is well aware this is his last chance in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, with only the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway remaining on the schedule after this Sunday’s race.
“Before the season started we said our only goal was to go out and have fun, anything else would be icing on the cake,” said Stewart, who won on the road course at Sonoma earlier this season to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs in his last season – even though he was eliminated in the first round. “It’s been fun but we’ve also been able to run really well. We aren’t going to change. We are going to keep having fun all the way to Homestead.”
And after Homestead? Even Stewart is not sure, although he won’t rule out possibly running anywhere – perhaps even Phoenix – in another type of car.
“I haven’t really thought much about it,” Stewart insisted. “We haven’t planned 2017 yet. I know I’ll have the freedom to do what I want to do whether that’s racing a dirt car or a sports car or anything in between. I look at this like it’s the beginning of the second half of my driving career. I’m just ready to do different things.”