Stewart Is The Desert Fox

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AVONDALE -- There’s nobody more anxious to get racing at Phoenix International Raceway, site of Sunday’s Dura-Lube 500, than defending race winner Tony Stewart.

For the past several years, the relatively flat one-mile desert oval has held a special place in the heart of the Indiana native.

The most recent Phoenix triumph for the second-year Winston Cup driver came last season. It was the second victory of his rookie year, and he’d go on to win the very next race - at Homestead - as well.

Stewart, who qualified 43rd in Friday's first round of qualifying, likes the Phoenix track so much, he said he’d wish the series hadn’t taken a week off and had gone straight from Rockingham to Phoenix.

With his win last season at the Arizona track, Stewart joined the late Davey Allison for most wins by a Winston Cup rookie. Stewart’s victory seven days later at Homestead enabled him to secure the record.

"It was great to show everyone that the first career win wasn't a fluke," Stewart says. "I mean, I was happy about my first win, but the biggest pleasure I got out of it was giving the guys their first win. Then to go to Phoenix and get that win, that was a personal victory because that track is like a home away from home for me."

Stewart says the reason he adapted to a Winston Cup car so well at Phoenix goes back to his past experiences in various forms of racing there.

"The first time I went there was in 1993 and I ran a Silver Crown car," Stewart says. "Since 1993 I've run USAC Midgets, USAC Silver Crown cars, Indy Racing League, Super-Modifieds and the Winston Cup car."

And it wasn’t like Stewart was out riding around getting track time before he became a household name across the country; he was winning big-time races in the USAC ranks.

Not forgetting his roots, the 29-year-old Stewart returned to Phoenix this past January at the Copper World Classic as a driver and a team owner for his friend and Busch Series competitor Jason Leffler. And like the good-old days for Stewart, he returned to victory lane in a USAC Midget.

"It was pretty cool because I actually won twice that day, once as a driver and once as an owner with Jason Leffler," Stewart explains. "I ran against Leffler, Davey Hamilton, Ryan Newman, Dave Steele, Billy Boat -- all the USAC regulars."

Stewart credits that seat time as one of the reasons he runs so well at Phoenix.

"With every different division of car that I've run there, I've ended up running a different line," Stewart says. "With that, I’ve learned a lot about the track and where the sweet spots are on that track. I was used to the place when it came time to run in Winston Cup. I knew a lot about that track and the different places that can make you go fast or slow. It gave me an opportunity to adapt a lot more to the car than to the track.

"You learn where all the bumps are on the track. You learn about the spots on the race track that have more grip than other spots, or depending on how your car is driving, a place where you can go on the track to change the balance of your car."

While he’s batting 1,000 in Winston Cup races at Phoenix so far, Stewart says he’s still not sure he’s figured the place out.

"Everybody calls it a flat track, but to me one end is flat and one end has banking to it," Stewart says. "It's a unique place because the radius of the corners are different on each end, the banking of the corners are different on each end, and then you have that neat dogleg on the backstretch which adds a lot of character to Phoenix."

If the past is any indication, the character in victory lane Sunday will be Tony Stewart.

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