Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews concludes for 2011 with a bonus edition: NASCAR's new Sprint Cup Series champ himself, Tony Stewart. We're grateful to Stewart-Haas Racing and NASCAR for squeezing us in to Stewart's busy champion's week schedule in Las Vegas.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
TS: Clint Bowyer.
SBN: Why's that?
TS: I just think he's got a lot more talent than everybody gives him credit for. He has great car control and he's just one of those guys that needs to be (mentioned) in that upper group, but nobody gives him credit for being up there.
SBN: What's a race in your career you didn't win and it still bugs you because you didn't win it?
TS: The 1996 Indy 500 and the 2001 Indy 500.
SBN: Sorry, refresh my memory. What happened in those races?
TS: We led 44 laps of the '96 race and blew a motor while leading. The 2001 race, we were leading the race when there was a rain delay toward the end and ... we took a gamble and pitted under caution. We knew if it went green the rest of the way, we were only going to have to do half of a pit stop to make it the rest of the way – and we would have had a shot to win the race.
Come to find out though, the way it all played out, we ended up having a caution that worked out for everybody else and not for us. We ended up sixth. I thought it was a good strategy to win the race, it just didn't work out for us. (Chip) Ganassi – which is who I drove for that year – I give him credit; he gave me a chance to win the race. So I don't feel like we made the wrong decision.
SBN: If you could pick three teammates for a four-car fantasy team, but you can't pick anyone you're currently associated with – including Hendrick drivers – who would you pick?
TS: Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and I would take Clint, too.
SBN: Is that because of your relationships with them or the information they give, or what?
TS: Well, I think with Kevin it's the relationship; with Matt it's the relationship and the information; and with Clint, even if you don't run good, you're still going to have fun with him no matter what. But he'd still run good for you.
SBN: You know, in Clint's 12 Questions interview, he objected to people picking him just because he was fun...
TS: (laughs) But he can get the job done, too.
SBN: OK, I think I know the answer to this next question – as do most NASCAR fans – but I'll ask you anyway. What driver did you want to model yourself after when you were coming up through the ranks? I'm guessing A.J. Foyt.
TS: Yeah, I would say A.J. of the guys that are retired. But if you're asking for current guys, I would actually want to be like Jimmie Johnson.
SBN: Because of all the championships?
TS: No. I mean, he runs well, obviously, but I just like Jimmie as a person. I like Jimmie at the track, I like Jimmie away from the track. There's a lot of things I like about Jimmie that I wish were qualities I had.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you've made from the track to the airport?
TS: I learned a shortcut at Pocono one year – which has been closed now and you can't even use it. We used to pop out over a mound of grass and come out right on the edge of the interstate. And the year that I went that way, I followed (Richard Childress Racing crewman) Chocolate Myers out and there were four people that were stuck at the top of the mound and none of them could get up over the top of it.
So I got out of my car and got all five vehicles up over the hill, and then we all left together again. It was pretty exciting.
SBN: Wait, so you got into each stuck car and drove it over the mound to safety?
TS: Yeah, I got each one up over the hill and onto the side of the interstate, and then everybody walked over the hill, got in their cars and we all left together.
SBN: Who is somebody famous you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
TS: Uh, any of the Victoria's Secret models. I'm not even picky in this category.
SBN: There are probably some of them here in Vegas if you're interested.
TS: That'd be great. I'll let you handle that. Bring two of them.
SBN: No problem. I'll bring them to the party.
TS: I'll even let you choose.
SBN: That's great, except I'm not sure my girlfriend will like this idea.
TS: Well, this is the part where we don't tell her.
SBN: Oh, OK. Anyway, would you rather win a bunch of races but somehow miss the Chase, or would you rather make the Chase and contend but win zero races?
TS: Geez, this is like picking the best case of a C-case scenario. I guess if you're not going to win the championship, you're better off taking the opportunity to win a Brickyard or a Daytona 500 than you are to make the Chase and then fizzle out.
SBN: Obviously, everybody wants to win. But why do you want to win so badly? Where does your motivation come from?
TS: I just think I was born with that. I mean, all my life I've been that way – ever since I was a kid. It doesn't matter whether we played video games or even before that when we had board games when you played with your sister and mom and dad – I didn't like losing then and didn't want to do anything but win when we played. I just think I had that instinct when we played from Day 1.
SBN: So it's the same for ping-pong, air hockey, anything?
TS: Anything. If it's sitting at a stoplight betting how many cars are going to run the red light, I don't want to lose at that, either.
SBN: How much does your personality differ from when you're inside the car to outside of it?
TS: I think it's quite a bit different, actually. You get around people who see us away from the track, and it's a pretty big contrast. You're still competitive and you still want to win everything, but I think in the car, we're focused and passionate all the time. We get outside the car and we're a lot more relaxed and easygoing, enjoying things away from racing.
SBN: If you could switch lives with an athlete from another sport, who would you want to be?
TS: A healthy Peyton Manning.
SBN: So Peyton without the neck problems.
SBN: Got it. If you could take a year away from NASCAR and go do whatever you wanted, but come back knowing you had a guaranteed ride, would you ever want to do that?
TS: I think you'd want to keep racing. I don't think even knowing you'd have a guaranteed ride would make a difference, because so much changes in a year. You just would miss a lot.
I think it's hard when you grew up in this and have been around this 13 years in the Cup Series, you'd miss those people you see every weekend. When you don't see them, like in the first couple weeks after the season is over, you kind of miss all of those people you say hi to and you come in contact with on a weekly basis. So I don't know that I'd want to be away from everybody for a year like that.
SBN: What if you could keep racing in other series but just take a year off from NASCAR? Still the same answer?
TS: I would rather make 30-hour days and 400-day years, so then I could still do the NASCAR deal and go race the sprint car as much as I want.
SBN: Well, you're the champ, so you can make up any scenario you want.
TS: Well, in that case, let's make 40-hour days and 500-day years. How about that?
SBN: That's fine. Eventually when you quit racing someday, how do you want to be remembered in the sport? What do you want your retirement story to say about you?
TS: I guess I take a lot of pride in that no matter what type of car we drive, we're always competitive in it. That's something I've taken a lot of pride in my whole life. (I'd want it to say) I was passionate about everything I did in racing, and that I gave back to the sport. I feel like I've worked hard at it.
SBN: The last question is kind of related to what just happened a couple weeks ago. If you're going to win the championship, would you rather have it clinched after Phoenix or win it on the last lap of the season at Homestead?
TS: Am I going to know that I'll win it?
SBN: Yeah, you're guaranteed the championship in this scenario.
TS: OK, if I'm guaranteed it, I would rather have it happen on the last lap at Homestead. Just for the fans' sake and the sport's sake.
SBN: So in other words, you enjoyed the stress of what you just went through enough to want to do it all over again.
TS: Oh yeah. Yeah, I'm every bit as excited about this championship because of what it means to our sport and the history of our sport. They're going to remember this for a long time, I hope.