Atlanta: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Strength in Numbers at Atlanta ATLANTA (March 9, 2004) - The history of Joe Gibbs Racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway is an impressive one. Seven wins and two poles in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series competition. Included in that total is...

Tony Stewart
Strength in Numbers at Atlanta

ATLANTA (March 9, 2004) - The history of Joe Gibbs Racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway is an impressive one. Seven wins and two poles in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series competition. Included in that total is Tony Stewart's breakthrough victory in March of 2002.

The win was Stewart's 13th since joining the series in 1999, but it wasn't a breakthrough in terms of putting The Home Depot Chevrolet driver on the map. He was already there. It was, however, a breakthrough in terms of the #20 team's performance at Atlanta.

In their first five starts at the 1.54-mile oval, their average finish was 22nd. But after scoring a ninth-place finish in the fall of 2001, Stewart and Co. have made Atlanta their playground. The ninth-place finish was followed by the win, which was followed by finishes of fourth, fifth and second in their three subsequent trips to Atlanta. In those five races, Stewart has led 341 laps, or 22 percent of the available 1,548 laps, earning an average finish of fourth. While still five wins shy of Labonte's Atlanta tally, it's still quite good when you consider that Sunday's Golden Corral 500 will mark Stewart's 11th career start at Atlanta and Labonte's 23rd.

Augmenting those statistics are the numbers Stewart has put up thus far in 2004. In the three races held prior to Sunday's stop in Atlanta, Stewart has scored two top-three finishes and led 142 laps, putting the 2002 series champion second in points for his best ever start to a Nextel Cup season. And with round four of the 36-race schedule coming into Home Depot's backyard, the 17-time winner wants his 18th win to come on home turf.

While last Sunday's race at Las Vegas was the first time teams dealt with the decreased rear spoiler height and the softer Goodyear tire, you made the comment that Atlanta would actually be the first real test of the new rear spoiler height and softer tire. Why?

"The performance of the tires has always fallen off at Las Vegas, and at Rockingham (N.C.) we ran the same tire we used there last year, and you really can't count Daytona (Fla.) toward this new package because the racing there is so different. At Atlanta, the tires still wear out, but guys have always been able to use track position to their advantage. By the time we've run Atlanta and Texas, we're going to have a really good feel for what the tire likes and dislikes."

With the new tire and rear spoiler package, does experience at Atlanta count for anything, or is everyone starting from zero?

"I don't think it's going to make us all revert back to zero and start over, but the new rules package is the same for everybody and that does keep things even. But you're still going to have to make adjustments to find what the car likes and dislikes, and that's no different than any other time we've had a new construction or compound of tire to deal with. You always have to learn to adjust because technology changes every year. From week to week, we're always in a constant stage of adjustment."

Between you and Bobby Labonte, Joe Gibbs Racing has seven wins and two poles in Nextel Cup competition at Atlanta. What is it that makes JGR so good at Atlanta?

"I don't think we really have any secrets. It's just that Bobby has always run well there. I finally got my first win there two years ago. But there are a lot of really good teams that run well at Atlanta. It's not just us. Hendrick, Childress, Yates - they all run well at Atlanta. And with the caliber of drivers in Nextel Cup, a team can hit the right setup and win on any given weekend."

Until your ninth-place finish in the fall of 2001, Atlanta was the last track for you to score a top-10 finish. In your very next race at Atlanta in the spring of 2002 you won, and you haven't finished lower than fifth since. Can you explain your progress at Atlanta?

"Greg Zipadelli (crew chief) has found a package that works really well there. I'm extremely comfortable in my car there, and every time we go back it seems like we just make The Home Depot Chevrolet a little bit better. It's not a track that we spent a lot of time testing at, but Bobby Labonte's reputation and track record at Atlanta have always been good, and that did help us. We haven't won a lot of races there. We've only won one. But it is a track I like. To win a race there in just our seventh start is actually pretty good."

With Joe Gibbs Racing's history at Atlanta and with Home Depot being headquartered in Atlanta, how big of a weekend is the Atlanta race weekend?

"Atlanta is always a big weekend for us with Home Depot's headquarters being down there. And with all the wins Bobby's had down there, I guess we have a reputation to uphold. It's where I got my first 500-mile win and I have a lot of friends down there. It's a track I like. It's a driver's track. It's one-and-a-half miles and fast."

Can your win last October at Charlotte (N.C.) be transferred to Atlanta?

"Not really. The tracks are so different. Even though the layouts look similar, the shape is quite a bit different and the surfaces are different. Charlotte has bumps that Atlanta doesn't have. At Atlanta you can take The Home Depot Chevy from the wall to the apron and run anywhere you want - not so much at Charlotte. They each have the same layout, but each of them has their own personality. Some things do apply, but some things don't. So that means that there aren't any guarantees on what you think you might have going into Atlanta. You have to drive the two tracks totally different from one another."

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. But that doesn't seem to have happened, and Atlanta is one of the fastest tracks the Nextel Cup Series visits. Does that concern you?

"It's fast, but it's not scary fast. You run really quick there, but the track is really wide. If you make a bobble, you don't have to hold your breathe. I ran a 237 mph average at Indianapolis during rookie orientation for the (1996) Indy 500, so going fast doesn't bother me in the least bit."

What's the trickiest part to making a quick lap at Atlanta?

"It has 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. And because the track is such a momentum race track, if you're a little bit off it seems like you're way off. If your stuff isn't right, you can't expect to run with the pack all day. You've got to be on your game, because it seems like there's always two or three guys who always get it right. And everybody's who's just a little bit off - it shows up big time on the clock."

Explain a lap around Atlanta.

"The frontstretch is a D-shape, so you're running a natural arc all the way into (turn) one, but you kind of drop down into one when you turn the car into the corner. There are a couple of bumps that tend to upset the car, and you really have to work on your shock package on Friday and Saturday to get your car nice and stable through there. But as soon as you go through those bumps and you get the car settled down, you're right back in the gas, carrying a lot of momentum off of (turn) two and down the backstretch right into (turn) three. You can carry a lot more momentum into three than you feel like you can, but that can be what hurts you later in a run because you're abusing the tires by getting into the corner so hard. But once you get to the bottom of three, the entrance into (turn) four comes up quick. It's a little bit tight getting in there, so you have to be careful and pay close attention to what's happening around you. Atlanta is fast because it allows you to be on the gas so often."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing