November 21, 2011
Tony Stewart's Canadian connection
By DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency
HOMESTEAD, FLA. - In the post race euphoria of winning his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Tony Stewart could point to the moment in the season when he knew that he still had what it took to be a champion again.
And that moment came on a hot Wednesday night in July at a dirt track in Canada.
On July 27 at tiny — 3/8th of a mile — Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve near Wayne Gretzky’s hometown of Brantford, Ont., Stewart passed Brad Sweet for the lead on Lap 10 and led the rest of the way for his first ever World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series victory.
That victory, Stewart said, seemed to spark something inside of him. He said it made racing fun again.
“I don’t know, I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “I’ve never felt like I really lost anything. But when we won that Outlaw race earlier this year ... maybe it sparked something then.”
For the past three seasons Stewart had maintained top level performances while running his own NASCAR Sprint Cup team. But he was never able to find that next gear — the gear that would get him a third championship.
It’s not that he thought he had somehow misplaced the God-given talent he is so obviously blessed with, but with the added responsibility of team ownership at Stewart Haas Racing with partner Gene Haas, maybe, he admitted, some of the pure joy of racing had gone missing in his life.
But the World of Outlaws win did indeed put a smile back on his face at the race track. For the longest time he even displayed the oversized winner’s cheque from Ohsweken in the back window of his motorhome.
“I just, you know, I had a lot of fun this year,” he said.
He said he had to convince Haas, crew chief Darian Grubb and others on the management team at SHR, that he needed nights off during the week to go racing at places like Ohsweken.
“I mean, Darian and Gene have let me go off racing any night I wanted to race and I got to run 30 nights this year away from NASCAR and I had a blast doing it,” Stewart said.
“I think that as much as it scared our management worrying about me getting hurt and how many people it can affect, Darian can tell you, when I would come back, it energized me.”
Stewart said that the 38-weekend NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule is the most gruelling in sport, starting as it does in February and not ending until the third weekend in November.
Not even Major League Baseball, with its 162-game schedule, goes that long.
But Stewart said nights like he had at Ohsweken made all the travel, all the sponsor commitments, all the media interviews that are part and parcel of big time stock car racing, worth it.
“It was like hitting a reset button. It was fun. I had fun racing again this year,” he said.
Stewart said that he never really thought about how it was affecting his Sprint Cup performances until after Chicagoland where the No. 14 team won the first of the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship races and then went on to do it again the next week at New Hampshire.
The joy that he felt at winning at Ohsweken, was now the same joy he was feeling at winning on stock racing’s biggest stages.
“I think it transferred to what we were doing with the Cup car,” he said.
Where once Stewart could be sour, even sullen, when things didn’t go right in races he found himself in a much more content state in the latter parts of this season.
“We would have fun Saturday night and Sunday, even if it wasn’t right or didn’t work out, I still had fun doing what I was doing again, and I think that made a big difference,” he said.
So track owner Glenn Styres and his crew at Ohsweken Speedway should take a bow.
One will never know for certain, but it is entirely possible that without that dirt track win back in July, Tony Stewart might not be a three time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion today.