SPARTA — If Tony Stewart could have one wish for the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, it could probably be summed up in three letters — H-O-T.
Of the two-time Cup Series champion's 39 career victories in NASCAR's highest division, 36 have come in the month of June or later.
The driver known as Smoke thrives in the heat.
Why is that so?
"I don't know. I wish somebody would tell me so I actually knew how to answer the question," Stewart said Tuesday.
Which is not to say Stewart doesn't have a theory. The guy who learned his craft as a youngster racing on the dirt tracks of his native Indiana suspects that background explains why he does so well in Cup races once the asphalt heats and gets slippery.
"That's the only thing I can think of, with our dirt-track background, we're used to cars sliding around a lot," Stewart said. "I don't know that there is a real logical explanation other than that. It's really the only thing that changes is that the surface gets hot, the tracks get a little bit greasy feeling and, when the cars are sliding around a little bit, it just doesn't seem to bother me as much."
Stewart, who turned 40 in May, was scheduled to be at Kentucky Speedway for a news conference Tuesday, then throw out the first pitch at Great American Ball Park before the Reds played the Yankees.
The stormy late-afternoon weather foiled him on both fronts.
He missed the Speedway media session after making the prudent decision not to board a helicopter in a thunderstorm for the trip from the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati Airport to the Gallatin County racetrack.
Then the Cincinnati-New York baseball game was postponed because of the rain.
Amid the stormy weather, Stewart spoke over the phone with some of the reporters who had traveled to Kentucky Speedway to interview him.
The driver and co-owner of the No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet said he isn't sure what to expect when the green flag drops on the Quaker State 400 on July 9. Stewart has never raced in Sparta, though he has tested at Kentucky Speedway in the past.
"It's been so long ago, I honestly don't remember a lot about it," he said. "The biggest thing I remember is, the elevation changes on the front stretch. You came off of Turn 4 and, when you got out to the wall, you are really climbing uphill and, when you go down to the bottom of the track at the start/finish line, that takes you downhill. Then you climb back up the hill to get ready for Turn 1."
Going into this week's road-course event at Infineon Raceway, Stewart is 11th in the Sprint Cup standings. He is one point behind 10th-place Clint Bowyer and a sure spot in the championship-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup (there are also two "wild-card" berths up for grabs).
When the Cup Series comes to Kentucky, Stewart said, he does not expect the famously bumpy surface at the track to cause problems.
"I don't think it will be a huge deal," he said.
Smoke just wants it to be hot.