KINGSPORT — Tony Stewart has a love-hate relationship with Bristol Motor Speedway.
The three-time NASCAR champion still counts the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” as one of his favorite race tracks, but hates the way his No. 14 Chevrolet has run the past few visits to the East Tennessee mountains.
That’s why he was running late for a function at the Small Miracles Therapuetic Equestrian Center on Tuesday. He was stuck at his North Carolina race shop with Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zippadelli, teammate Ryan Newman and their respective crew chiefs getting together a game plan for Sunday’s Food City 500.
“I was at a meeting with Greg, Ryan, Steve Addington, Tony Gibson trying to figure out a game plan for the weekend,” Stewart said. “We have run terrible the last two or three races here. I’m so looking forward to a new package for this weekend and seeing if we can get things turned around.”
From an overall standpoint, Stewart doesn’t have anything to worry about. He wrapped up a third series title last season, beating Carl Edwards by virtue of a tiebreaker in the closest championship battle ever.
He also comes to Bristol as the Sprint Cup Series’ most recent winner, scoring his 45th career victory this past Sunday at Las Vegas.
Still, it is a challenge to overcome his recent luck at Bristol. During the series’ last visit to the high-banked track, Newman won the pole for the race, while Stewart squeaked into the field with a provisional.
It is one reason why Stewart is placing a lot of emphasis on Friday’s qualifying day.
“You want to build some momentum on Friday,” he said. “We definitely want to get off on the right foot on Friday.”
Life is good for Stewart these days, who in his 14th season is one of the most popular drivers on the circuit. It wasn’t always that way as the often volatile driver clashed with fans in his early years.
Stewart believes his turnaround is no different than what other drivers have experienced.
“They didn’t like Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. for a while and then they loved him,” he said. “It was the same with Darrell Waltrip, who they didn’t like for a long time. This is a sport with a lot of emotion all the time.
“It took me a while to find my place with everything. I think one of the biggest things that has helped me is where I own three dirt tracks and these race teams, I understand more of where NASCAR is coming from. Being a track owner, you see the full circle of why things are done a certain way.”
Stewart believes he relates to the fans so well because he’s a normal guy, who didn’t come from a rich family, and enjoys what he does for a living.
When it comes to his fellow racers, Stewart said you have to respect others to earn respect.
“I don’t have a big habit of just going out and wrecking guys,” he said. “That’s been a big thing the last couple of years of guys just taking each other out. I think I’m pretty fair with how I race guys. I race guys the way I want to be raced.
“When I have a bad day, I’m not going to hold guys up. I lost some points early last season, but when it came to the end of the year and we were having the good days, guys remembered it. Races like this weekend, what happens on lap 50, it doesn’t make sense to race a certain way when you consider what happens 450 laps later. The guys who race smart on average win races and championships.”
Stewart has won plenty of both in his career as a former Indy Racing League, IROC and USAC Triple Crown champion outside of NASCAR.
He continues to compete frequently outside the Sprint Cup Series, already running eight events this season in winged sprint cars. He also competed in the annual Chili Bowl midget race in Oklahoma and the season-opening race for the Nationwide Series at Daytona.
At 40, Stewart said he never worries about the dangers of racing in another series.
“I’ve run more winged-car races than the World of Outlaws have this year and my goal is to run 40 of those races this year,” Stewart said. “I’m still going to run a couple of late model races and modified races. When guys race Saturdays, people say they put themselves at risk,. I probably have a greater shot of getting hurt by getting in a street car and going to Johnson City to go eat dinner than I do to race at Bristol.
“All the racing I do on the side, I know the safety equipment is as good as it can be and I’m as safe as I can be in those cars. The guys on the team understand the benefits outweigh the risks. This is what I’m passionate about. What I do as a hobby is to go race.”