Here’s a well-known fact about Tony Stewart: He likes it slick.
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“Yeah, I love it,” Stewart said of the slow and slippery conditions at Phoenix International Raceway, where he qualified eighth Saturday with a lap of 135.911 mph.
As the clouds cleared and the track heated up, Stewart qualified one position ahead of Sprint Cup points leader Carl Edwards (135.701 mph) for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500.
And with NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup coming down to two final races and only three points separating Edwards and Stewart, every position counts.
“Yeah, I would like to have been a little better; I think our car is a little better than that,” Stewart said. “I was a little too free to run a faster lap than that. It was a solid run, and we are in good shape right now.
“It is slower, obviously. It lost grip, but it is the same as what we had when we tested here. I am all right if it stays like this for the whole day (Sunday).”
Stewart didn’t want to make an early call as to whether a second groove would develop during the Nationwide Series race Saturday, but Edwards, who participated in the 200-mile event, said the groove “widened out a little more than (he) thought it was going to.”
“You can definitely run two-wide around the whole racetrack,” Edwards said. “That was kind of news to me. I didn’t expect that. I learned a couple things about different spots on the track, where there is grip and stuff like that.
“I still think tomorrow is going to be so much different than today. The cars are different, and the weather looks to be different. I think it will be its own race, and the strategies that worked today may not work tomorrow as well.”
With the drivers rolling off in close proximity to each other, the race should be a nail-biter from the first turn to the finish.
Certainly momentum is on Stewart’s side after winning the last two races.
But when it comes to racing at Phoenix — the penultimate race in the Chase — under the new configuration, there are plenty of unknowns for the entire field to work out.
Despite four hours of practice Friday, there’s no substitute for green-flag competition.
“Who adapts to it is going to be a big key, obviously,” Stewart said. “We’ve all had two full days of testing here. Some of us were here for the tire test, so we’ve got a lot of laps here before the race weekend started that we don’t normally have at a regular race track.
“So I think there’s still variables that are yet to be answered about the racing side of it … it’s just trying to figure out I would say pit strategy and race strategy; those are the things we really don’t know what to expect yet.”
What Stewart can rely on, however, is the strength of the No. 14 team and his former experience of racing for championships. Prior to the start of the Chase, Stewart said he didn’t belong in NASCAR’s postseason. But his team has proved its self-deprecating owner wrong.
“I think they’ve believed all along,” Stewart said. “The great thing is I haven’t seen our organization change anything. I haven’t seen their demeanor, their attitude, any of it change. They were, early in the Chase, the guys were kind of the cheerleaders for me and keeping me pumped up.
“I’m proud of our organization. Like we mentioned earlier, I’m proud of our entire organization, our marketing staff, our engineering department; everything about it is coming together right at the right time, so it’s easier to have that confidence when every aspect of your company is doing a good job right now.”