Atlanta: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Home Field Advantage ATLANTA (March 15, 2005) - Atlanta is a four-hour drive south from Joe Gibbs Racing's Huntersville, N.C.-based headquarters, but the ultra-fast Atlanta Motor Speedway still provides a home field advantage to ...

TONY STEWART
Home Field Advantage

ATLANTA (March 15, 2005) - Atlanta is a four-hour drive south from Joe Gibbs Racing's Huntersville, N.C.-based headquarters, but the ultra-fast Atlanta Motor Speedway still provides a home field advantage to the two-time championship outfit that fields cars for drivers Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Jason Leffler in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.

In the last nine years Joe Gibbs Racing has scored seven wins and two poles in Nextel Cup competition at Atlanta. And while it is Labonte who has procured the lion's share of those accolades by taking six of the seven wins and both poles, Stewart's victory at the 2002 spring Atlanta race proved that he too could carry JGR's torch in the Peach State.

The win was Stewart's 13th since joining the series in 1999, and while it wasn't a breakthrough in terms of putting The Home Depot Chevrolet driver on the map (he was already there), it was 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. made Atlanta their playground. The ninth-place finish was followed by the win, which was followed by finishes of fourth, fifth, second, seventh and ninth in their five subsequent trips to Atlanta. In those seven races, Stewart has led 468 laps, or 21.3 percent of the available 2,198 laps, earning an average finish of fifth. 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 13th career start at Atlanta and Labonte's 25th.

Now with round four of the 36-race schedule coming into the race track just 40 minutes south of The Home Depot's corporate office, Stewart - a 19-time Nextel Cup race winner - wants win #20 for team #20 to come on home turf.

With races at California and Las Vegas now under the collective belts of Nextel Cup drivers, the sentiment still seems to be that the decreased rear spoiler height and the softer Goodyear tires mandated for this year won't truly be tested until races at Atlanta and Texas. Is that the case?

"The performance of the tires has always fallen off at Las Vegas and California. 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."

What are the keys to being successful at Atlanta?

"You just have to constantly adjust your race car. We've led so many laps in the first half of a race there and then been outside the top-five at the end of the day because we didn't stay caught up with the changing track conditions. Atlanta cools off so much and changes so much that you always have to be on top of your setups. You need to make sure that you have enough adjustability as the day goes on. You don't want to get your car so good at the first half of the day that it gets too tight at the end of the day. You almost have to be a little bit on the loose side to really be good at the end of the day."

With Joe Gibbs Racing's history at Atlanta and with Home Depot being headquartered in Atlanta, how big of an event 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."

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 outside of the top-10 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."

At Atlanta's sister race track - Charlotte Motor Speedway - you've logged a win, four top-threes, six top-fives and nine top-10s in 12 point-paying starts. Can your success at Charlotte transfer 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."

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/hdr-

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