Atlanta: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Time to Corral a Strong Finish ATLANTA (March 15, 2006) - Tony Stewart has had a good start to his season. The results just don't show it. In the three NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races held this year, Stewart has paced the field...

TONY STEWART
Time to Corral a Strong Finish

ATLANTA (March 15, 2006) - Tony Stewart has had a good start to his season. The results just don't show it.

In the three NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races held this year, Stewart has paced the field in each race for a total of 102 laps. Throw in the non-point Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duel races from Daytona (Fla.), and Stewart's laps led total jumps to 124.

The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing finished fifth at Daytona and then appeared poised to either win or finish second at California. But a blown engine less than 40 laps from the finish relegated Stewart to a 43rd place finish. And at Las Vegas last Sunday, Stewart was a constant amongst the top-five, leading six times for 54 laps before a flat right rear tire nine laps short of the finish dropped him to 21st.

Instead of being second or third in points, Stewart is 19th entering Sunday's Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And it's there where Stewart and Co. plan to complete a strong race run with a strong finish.

The 1.54-mile Atlanta oval has been good to Stewart. It's the site of his first win in a 500-mile race and home to four top-fives, eight top-10s and 469 of a possible 2,848 laps led (16.5 percent). In fact, since winning at Atlanta in March 2002, Stewart has finished within the top-10 all but once to record an average finish of seventh.

The two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion earned his first title in 2002 thanks in large part to his early-season win at Atlanta. With another championship squarely in his sights, Stewart is focused on corralling another Atlanta victory.

After last week's race at Las Vegas you talked about driver etiquette, specifically in regard to drivers with slower cars not holding up drivers with faster cars. Veterans understand this concept, but it seems to be a little harder for younger drivers to grasp. Why?

"I think it goes back to the Busch Series. The worst thing that happened to that series was guys like Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton and some of the other veteran drivers that have been around a long time aren't running the Busch Series anymore, or not as much as they used to. So what's happened is that younger drivers who have come up through Busch haven't learned the respect of give-and-take. These Cup races are 400- to 500-mile races and drivers have to work with each other. You're racing the whole race, but you have to race the race. You don't race each other until the end. Unless you're just trying to lead laps and all that, there's no point in racing each other when there's still 80 laps to go when you still have such a long way to go before the finish. These aren't sprint races. They're long races and you've got to work with one another."

Where did you learn the give-and-take that's necessary in these four- and five-hour races that make up the Nextel Cup Series?

"I learned from example. When I was in Busch and even in my first year in Cup, I watched Mark Martin and paid attention to what he was doing. When he would let me go I would sit there and think, 'Why is he letting me go?' And then you realize after he drives back by you that he was letting his car come to him while you were wearing your car out. Granted, it was in a day where the tires were different and they gave up a lot more and that's where you learned the give-and-take because you had to take care of your tires. You couldn't run 100 percent every lap. But now with the tires the way they are you can run harder, longer. But you still have to work with each other. Blocking and holding guys up when they're obviously faster and they've caught you - that's something you can't do. That's not give-and-take, and you'll end up making people mad when you're holding them and the rest of the field up."

At what point in the race does the idea of give-and-take end?

"In the last 40 laps after the last pit stop you've got to do everything you can to win the race. Because what happens in the pits will probably dictate more than what happens on the race track, between the time you spend on pit road and the adjustments you make to your race car. After that it's time to go, and you do whatever it is you have to do."

What's different about the feel of your Home Depot Chevrolet this year compared to where you were at this point last year?

"We just have a better balance than what we had a year ago. We're far ahead of where we were at this time last year. It's nice to come out of California and Las Vegas with the runs that we had, even if the results weren't what we would've liked."

Does what you feel in the car at California and Las Vegas translate to what you'll feel in the car at Atlanta?

"I don't know that there is any carry-over. Atlanta has more bumps and it seems like it's one of those tracks that gives up a lot more grip. The grove moves around quite a bit more. The surface is quite a bit more worn out than it is at California or Las Vegas. Atlanta is just one of those fun tracks because it's challenging, especially from the driver's standpoint because you have to get a balance that's going to be good for the whole day, not something that's just good for a couple laps."

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 The 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 (Labonte, Stewart's former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate) had down there (six), 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."

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 14 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. 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."

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've finished outside of the top-10 only one 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."

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 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 Jeff Burton , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing