Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Stewart has Busch, Cup races in weekend plans
By Mark Ashenfelter
Special to ESPN.com
A few minor burns suffered in a car fire during last weekend's Nextel Cup race won't keep Tony Stewart from racing this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
In fact, Stewart's pulling double duty yet again, running in both Friday's Busch Series race and Saturday night's Nextel Cup event.
Having suffered burns on his right elbow and thigh, Stewart easily could have opted out of the Busch race in a car owned by Kevin Harvick. But Phoenix is one of Stewart's favorite tracks, and by Tuesday he was already feeling much better after the scary incident at Texas.
Stewart was strong early at Texas, but never could stay right with the leaders as the laps wound down. Finally, the engine in his Chevrolet blew up and flames shot from the rear. Stewart exited the car quickly and flew home that night after being treated at the track.
"I'm not in near as much pain today as I have been yesterday and Sunday," Stewart said Tuesday. "But Sunday, I had a lot of discomfort. They gave me a shot while we were at Texas that basically let me sleep the whole flight home, and I slept through the night pretty good. But [Monday] was an antsy day for me. I couldn't really get comfortable the whole day due to the pain. But today, it seems like the pain has decreased quite a bit."
Stewart isn't sure just what he'll have to do differently inside his race car to protect the burns. The good news is that he doesn't believe they'll cause too many problems.
Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to get out of his car after having started two races -- at New Hampshire and Pocono -- because of burns suffered in a sports car practice accident at Infineon Raceway. It's not expected that Stewart's burns will cause similar problems.
"We're going to have to check with the doctor this week," he said. "I'm supposed to go in either late [Tuesday] or early [Wednesday] depending on when we can get in to see the doctor. But they're supposed to evaluate the burns. There are some second-degree burns and a lot of first-degree burns on that side of my leg.
"None of it is in contact with the seat itself. So there won't be any pressure. The only thing we're going to have to worry about is the sensitivity to heat. So we're going to have to sit down with the doctor and evaluate that. I'm still planning on running both the Busch and Cup races this weekend.
"But as far as what we'll do to shield the wounds from the heat, I'm not exactly sure what that's going to entail yet."
At least Stewart's heading to a place where he's comfortable. He raced a great deal at this track earlier in his career and has run virtually everything imaginable at Phoenix.
Stewart has run USAC Midgets and Silver Crown cars, Indy Racing League vehicles, Supermodifieds and a Nextel Cup car. Friday night, he will add a Busch Series start to his résumé.
He has made a lot of friends in the Southwest desert region and enjoys seeing them while in town. This year, he'll get two chances to do that as this is the first ever spring Cup event at the track.
"When Buddy Jobe [former owner and president at Phoenix International Raceway] had this facility, he was the one who told me that Phoenix was my West Coast home-away-from-home," Stewart said. "And I didn't realize it until I came to Phoenix when I was with the IRL and saw how many test sessions we had at Phoenix and how many laps I had put in there before a race even started.
"Whether it was tire testing or chassis testing the IRL car or a USAC Midget or a Sprint car, I spent a lot of time at Phoenix International Raceway. I really do feel like it's my West Coast home-away-from-home. & It's a place where I feel comfortable. I know every inch of that racetrack. I've driven five different types of cars there, and between all those cars, I've run at least five different lines. I feel like I know it better than most of the other folks, who've just run stock cars there."
The start to Stewart's season hasn't been quite as strong as he'd hoped, but he's not about to panic, either. Noted for slow starts in the past, Stewart said there's no single reason why the team isn't hitting on all cylinders.
Still, he points out that Ferrari is struggling in Formula One and few expect that team to stay down all year. Given Stewart's history, anyone betting against him will likely end up on the losing end of that wager.
"If we knew what the common variable was, we'd know what to do to fix it. But it's just been a little bit of everything this year," Stewart said. "We've been off on our aero program some. Obviously we had a motor problem that we haven't had in the past happen this past weekend with the crankshaft breaking. We've had weird things happen that we're not used to.
"So, I'm not sure what the problem is, but hopefully we'll find it soon to where we can get the issues addressed. The main thing is to get ourselves back in the top 10 in points right now and be in a position [so that] when those last 10 races start, we'll have all the issues solved by then."
Stewart might be in luck this weekend, with 80-degree temperatures forecast for Phoenix. He usually starts picking up momentum in May when the tracks get warmer and slicker. That makes the cars harder to drive -- which is when Stewart often outshines the competition.
"I always look forward to the month of May coming around. But I don't feel a sense of urgency of trying to get back on track right now," he said. "I feel like we're just kind of in a learning process right now. We're not really on par like we've been in the past, but I'm not feeling like we'd better find this soon or we're going to be in big trouble.
"It's just a matter of doing what we've been doing and keeping the guys pumped up on the race team. Sooner or later, we're going to find something. With this caliber of a race team, you don't win a championship by not knowing what you're supposed to do."
Once May rolls around, expect at least one report that Stewart's itching to drive in the Indianapolis 500. He got everyone's attention last year by showing up at the track with his helmet during the final day of qualifying, but commitments to his Cup sponsors kept him from jumping into a car at the last second.
Rest assured, Stewart will be at the Brickyard next month. Just don't read too much into it.
"If I get a day or two off, it's only about a 45-minute drive to the speedway," said Stewart, who has moved back to Indiana. "So I can guarantee you you'll see me during the month of May up there just cruising around.
"But no helmet bag, no uniforms, no physical in the media center this year -- just walking around and having a good time with everybody."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor for NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.