Tony Stewart doesn't know why it happens, only that it does. There's something about the summertime that brings out the best in the three-time champion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- a pattern that could be on the brink of repeating itself yet again this year.
"I would say probably the last 13 or 14 years, people have been asking me that same question. I never have had a good answer. I honestly don't know," Stewart said Thursday on a teleconference with reporters. "The only thing I can think of is just, the tracks get hot and get slick. Seems like when the tracks get slick, that plays into your driving style a little bit. I really don't have any scientific explanation or anything of why. Like you say, history shows, the stats show, this is the time of year when we get running better."
That was certainly the case last weekend, in a runner-up finish at Daytona International Speedway that could serve as a springboard for Stewart's drive toward the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The next few weeks feature a stretch of tracks that traditionally favor Stewart, who is back in the top 10 in the standings, and has recorded only six of his 48 career victories on NASCAR's premier circuit before the month of June.
That push continues this weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway, where Stewart has won three times and owns the highest driver rating (111.7) of any active competitor on tour. Stewart-Haas Racing tested at the 1.058-mile Loudon facility for two days before the race at Kentucky, trying to add to a track record that includes a seventh-place finish in the most recent Granite State event last September.
"I'm excited about it. It didn't seem like it drove any different than it had with the other car," Stewart said. "Just a matter of going through the same process that we did with the other cars, just trying to get balanced. Still seems like the handling characteristics are the same. You fight loose entry and exit and tight in the center. It's figuring out how to keep that balance. Track was fast. So I'm looking forward to it, for sure."
SHR seemed slow to adapt to the redesigned Generation-6 car that debuted on NASCAR's top series this season, but right on cue Stewart warmed up along with the weather, breaking through with a victory in June at Dover that vaulted him squarely into the Chase conversation. Now comes an opportunity to solidify that position, beginning with a race at a New Hampshire track where both Stewart and SHR teammate Ryan Newman have run well over the past few years.
Then it's on to Stewart's backyard and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the Indiana native has two career victories and yearns to win above anywhere else. A few weeks after that comes Watkins Glen International, the road course where Stewart's five career race wins are a record in NASCAR competition. Stewart also took part in a Goodyear tire test at the Brickyard, which could help his cause there -- although Watkins Glen may be another story.
"I'm nervous about Watkins Glen now," he said. "We were so bad at Sonoma that we're definitely going to have to go to work and find a lot to get our car better. But they're all tracks that historically we've been good at. It's just this year we've fought trying to keep the car balanced, doing the things we need to do to be fast every week."
Stewart's seven career road course victories are second-most in NASCAR history, behind Jeff Gordon's record of nine. But he certainly didn't look like a road course expert last month at Sonoma Raceway, where the team's old setup issues resurfaced and he finished an uncharacteristic 28th. That performance prompted natural concerns over the next road course race on the schedule, even if the venue is historically one of Stewart's best.
"We seemed to be so far off at Sonoma, so we underestimated how we thought our car was going to be for the race," he said. "You know, I just feel like we've got a lot of work to do. There were guys that we were around and saw during the race that their cars had a lot of grip, were fast, had speed. We just struggled for grip the whole time we were there. That's something that's kind of uncharacteristic for us. You always struggle for grip at Sonoma, but it seems like in the race it would always kind of fall into our hands. It went the other way this year. As the race went on, it just got worse and worse for us. I think it's getting the handling where we need to be is the biggest thing I'm worried about right now."
The good news is, his team still has four weeks to work on it. Requiring more immediate attention is New Hampshire, where Stewart will attempt to snap a streak of 10 different winners over the track's last 10 events. Setups often carry over at the Loudon track, meaning success this weekend might provide an advantage when NASCAR returns to the facility for the second race of the Chase -- not to mention a boost in his efforts to get there.
"Loudon is a good track for us," Stewart said. "We're looking forward to it obviously. If we can have a good race there this weekend, that will be a lot of momentum to carry for two weeks to come to Indianapolis for the Brickyard."
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