Tony Stewart Returns to site of first 500-mile win ATLANTA (October 22, 2002) - Before coming to Atlanta Motor Speedway back in March, there weren't many things that Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart hadn't done in his three previous years...
Returns to site of first 500-mile win
ATLANTA (October 22, 2002) - Before coming to Atlanta Motor Speedway back in March, there weren't many things that Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart hadn't done in his three previous years in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Win a race as a rookie? Yes - three times. Earn the Rookie of the Year title? Did that - 1999. Win a pole? Yep - four times. Win the most races in one season? Uh-huh - six in 2000. Win a 500-mile race? Um, let me get back to you on that.
Believe it or not, Stewart had not accomplished a victory in a 500-mile race prior to his win at Atlanta in March. His 12 previous triumphs were in races never more than 400 miles, and not that the statistic grated on Stewart, but he knew it was out there.
When asked about getting his first 500-mile win as he sat in his champagne-soaked firesuit in the press box high above the frontstretch grandstands, Stewart replied, "That was the first thing I thought of when we crossed the finish line is that I finally won a 500-mile race today. I don't know why we haven't won one before today, but it just seems like the races that we really run well at are 400-mile races or shorter. It was nice to finally get one here."
Getting the win 'here' was that much sweeter, for Atlanta is home to Stewart's primary sponsor - The Home Depot. The first to greet Stewart in victory lane was Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli, whose enthusiasm was rivaled only by the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing crew.
That enthusiasm seems to have endured nearly seven months later, for Stewart returns to Atlanta atop the Winston Cup point standings. Sunday's NAPA 500 at the 1.54-mile oval is the fourth to last race of the season, and upon its successful conclusion, will bring Stewart ever closer to another first - a Winston Cup championship.
How important would you say your win earlier this year in Atlanta was in helping you get to the position where you are today - Winston Cup point leader?
"We've normally started our season in a point deficit, and this year was no different. When the engine let go after just the second lap of the Daytona 500, we knew that as each race went on, we had to get as many points as possible. I don't think Atlanta was a pivotal point. I don't think it was of any greater significance than our wins at Richmond (Va.) or Watkins Glen (N.Y.) were. It was just one race on the 36-race schedule where we had to get as many points as possible. We did that win a win, and it just happened to come early in the season."
With a win at Atlanta, a fifth at Texas, a sixth in the Coca-Cola 600 and a third at Charlotte two weeks ago, do you feel that in this season you have a better handle on the 1.5-mile tri-ovals than you have in previous years?
"We've gained some momentum, for sure. I think there are still a couple of teams out there that have found a little bit more at those tracks than we have, but I also think we're battling the same thing we've been battling every year, and that's aero. We're still racing a six-year-old car that we're trying to get caught up with everybody else. I'm real proud of what our (fabrication) shop has been able to do in the last year with our Home Depot Pontiac, and what Greg (Zipadelli, crew chief) has been able to do with the guys to be able to get us to where we are. We can't give up. We've got to keep digging right now and continue take it one race at a time."
How much of a role do aerodynamics play at Atlanta?
"A lot, but the good thing is that even though aero is a big issue there, the track widens out quite a bit. Twenty laps into a run, you've got guys who will run right down on the line on the bottom of the track and you've got guys who will run clear up by the wall. It's a track that gives you the kind of flexibility that we have at Michigan, to where however your car is driving, you can move around on the race track and find a spot that helps you and your car not be so aero-sensitive."
Is moving around on the race track how you were able to beat all of those aero issues back in March?
"I certainly tried to, and it did seem to work. But, that's not always the case. Sometimes the place where you absolutely have to be on the race track, you can't get to because of the line other cars are running. But for the most part, Atlanta is wide enough to give you the flexibility to at least try some stuff that may help you get around there better."
Tony Stewart - Returns to Site of First 500-Mile Win Page Two
Some people might think that by winning at Atlanta, along with the runs you've been able to put together at Texas and Charlotte, that your Pontiac Grand Prix is more competitive than you say it is. So how does the Pontiac suffer from an aerodynamic deficiency?
"It's when you get in traffic, and it's been that way since the beginning of the year. Everything that we did in Las Vegas, if you look, was when the traffic was thin or when we could start up at the front of the pack when there were less cars up there to create turbulent air. Everything we did in Atlanta the very next weekend - same deal. We were pretty much by ourselves. It's when you get these cars in traffic that the Pontiac loses the majority of its downforce.
"All of the cars are going to lose downforce behind other cars, but it seems like the Pontiac loses more downforce, percentage-wise, than the Fords or the Dodges. I think that showed at the end of the Vegas race. I didn't just forget how to drive The Home Depot car at the end of the race. Those guys all of the sudden just didn't become better race car drivers at the end of the race. The competition is just so tough and tight that you get near the end of the race like that and you're not just going to drive away from guys like you were before. So with that being said, that's why the Dodges and Fords were able to run tighter with each other because they don't lose that much downforce in traffic. Even with fresh tires, you just can't overcome their downforce.
"Now, things have gotten better since then with some of the rule changes NASCAR has given us throughout the course of the year, but we're still racing a six-year-old body against other manufacturers whose bodies are only two years old. We've got some of the most dedicated, hardest working and smartest people in racing working in our (fabrication) shop, but there's only so much they can do to overcome a deficit like that."
Next year every car on the race track, whether it's a Chevy, Pontiac, Ford or Dodge, will have been built under a common template. That's something you've wanted for awhile. Now that you're getting it, what are your thoughts?
"I'm happy. Now we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have the same opportunity to have the same things that everyone else has. Each particular brand of car will still maintain their own identification, but at the same time it gives us as drivers the knowledge that if we beat a guy we beat him because we did a better job than they did. That's something we haven't had for a long time, and I'm excited that we're getting it."
When Atlanta was re-paved in 1997 and drivers were qualifying in excess of 197 mph, it was thought that speeds would slowly come down as the surface aged. Has that happened?
"It's still a pretty fast race track. I thought that as time went on and the track surface got older, the speeds would probably slow down some. But it's still pretty fast, and when you do hit the wall you hit it pretty hard. There's not much room for error simply because of how fast the track is. The faster you go the more race track you need to get your car back under control."
What's the trickiest part to making a quick lap at Atlanta?
"It's got its set of bumps. You need to make sure your car gets over the bumps but still turns well. Normally, if you turn after you hit the bumps, you're tight. If you turn before you hit the bumps, you're loose. Just finding that common balance - getting the car over the bumps but having it turn at the same time - that's what you're shooting for."