TONY STEWART Looking Sharp Entering Sharpie 500 ATLANTA (Aug. 22, 2005) - Racing at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway has been compared to riding a roller-coaster at warp speed to flying jet fighters in a gymnasium. The tight and fast. 533-mile...
Looking Sharp Entering Sharpie 500
ATLANTA (Aug. 22, 2005) - Racing at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway has been compared to riding a roller-coaster at warp speed to flying jet fighters in a gymnasium. The tight and fast. 533-mile bullring leaves little room for error, and with 43 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers jockeying for position while running laps at over 120 mph, the roller-coaster tends to jump its tracks and the jet fighters often collide.
Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, sums it up best: "Bristol is a track that's feast or famine."
Stewart should know. He won the 2001 Bristol night race, and in his four Bristol starts leading up to that contest, he led 413 of an available 2,000 laps (just over 20 percent). But in his six starts following that Bristol stomp, Stewart had not finished better than 15th, as he repeatedly saw his strong drives thwarted by Bristol's unrepentant circumstances.
Finally, in the Nextel Cup Series' visit to Bristol this past April, Stewart overcame his cramped pit area and an on-track spin to notch a strong third-place result. At the time, it was Stewart's best finish to his still young season.
Fast forward to the upcoming Sharpie 500 at Bristol where Stewart is the hottest driver in NASCAR, having won five of the last eight races while also logging a second, a pair of fifths and a seventh in the last nine races. For the third straight week he sits atop the championship point standings, and his summer-long tour de force has competitors and pundits alike pointing to the #20 Home Depot Racing Team as favorites for the series' title.
But 13 races still remain before a champion is anointed, with Bristol serving as the next challenge on the march toward the crown.
With the pressure upon some drivers to make the cut for the Chase for the Championship, will it make Bristol an even more aggressive race?
"I don't think it'll be any different. I still think when it comes to racing, guys are simply just racing. I think at the end of the day they look at the point standings, but for the most part, the whole time you're out there you're worried about winning the race or doing as well as you can. I really don't think people's mindsets will change."
Now that the Chase for the Championship seems to be taking shape, have you thought about a strategy to use during the final 10-race stretch to the finish?
"If you win races the points take care of itself. Every week when we go to the track we're going to try to win the race, and if we can't win we'll finish as high as we can and get as many points as we can. Once we do that the points will just have to be what they are."
When you were at Bristol for the spring race you raced on a Goodyear tire that was different from year's past. What was different about it and what affect did it have on the race?
"I think when Goodyear brought this tire to Bristol they wanted it (the performance of the tire) to fall off a little bit so you couldn't stay out and run lap after lap. But on Friday when we practiced, really we could run 40 or 50 laps and only lose a tenth or two-tenths. When the race started, I think guys had it in their minds that they weren't going to lose a lot of time. That wasn't the case, and Greg Biffle found out the hard way. He was the leader and he decided to stay out while most everyone else pitted. That's the toughest position to be in - leading the race. You get a caution and know that you can make it, but you don't know how it'll affect your track position. It's really a disadvantage. Once the leader reacts, everybody else reacts behind him, but they have more time and more information to make their decision. But at that point the leader's decision is already made. And at Bristol back in April, Greg probably thought he had a good enough car, and that track position would be good enough for him. But it didn't work out that way."
Keeping your race car in one piece seems to be a difficult task for anyone who races at Bristol. Spins and crashes appear routine. Yet when you spun on lap 375 during the spring race, you kept it off the wall and away from other cars before grabbing a gear to get going again. How much of that was skill and how much of that was luck?
"Luck, because there's only so much you have control over. The rest of it is just your instincts telling you to do part of it, but the rest of it is just luck. We got lucky that we didn't hit the wall sliding up the race track, and as we were spinning around nobody else hit us, and lucky that when it did come around I got the wheels straight in time. Part of it is skill and part of it is luck. Nobody is going to come in here and tell you it's all skill and that they practice all the time and they've got it down to perfection. But after you do it a couple times, I guess you do get better at it. But you still hope you don't have to do it."
Because things happen so quickly at Bristol, are your senses heightened more so than they are at other tracks?
"You just don't have time to relax. Everything happens so fast. At the end of the day when the race is done and your adrenaline wears off, you're worn out. But when you're in the car and the adrenaline's pumping, you don't get in that smooth, calm rhythm that you do at a place like Michigan or California where you've got big, sweeping corners and long straightaways. There's no time to relax. You don't get that luxury at Bristol. It's standard short track racing."
There always seems to be a ton of contact at Bristol. How do you balance patience with aggressiveness?
"I think the contact you see at Bristol is more from being so close to one another while going so fast. All it takes is a small bobble on someone's part to cause a chain reaction of guys bumping into each other. It doesn't necessarily cause a wreck, but it gets guys beating and banging on one another. It's not out of necessity. It's just the set of circumstances you have there. Bristol is a place where you have to really be careful. You have to be very patient. We all run so fast there as a group that you really have to take your time when you go to pass somebody. If somebody gets someone else hung out on the outside, it's easy to just tuck in behind the guy on the inside and follow him on by. That's the easiest way to pass cars at Bristol. If you have a good handling car, you've got to take care of it. Taking care of your fenders is the biggest variable in the equation."
Do you go into Bristol knowing that a little more give-and-take will be needed to ensure a strong finish?
"You've got to make sure that you keep the fenders on your car all day and that you're not beating up your race car. If that means a guy gets underneath you and you've got to let him go, then that's what you do. But at the same time, you still have to race hard and not give up track position and lap times because it doesn't take long before you're in lapped traffic. It's a track where you need to be really aggressive, but at the same time, taking care of your equipment all day is key."
You've said in the past that Bristol is your favorite track, but your four top-fives are offset by nine finishes of 15th or worse, two of which were DNFs (Did Not Finish). That being said, is Bristol still your favorite track?
"It's one of my favorites, but Bristol is a track that's feast or famine. If you have a really good day, it's a lot of fun. But if you have one little problem, it normally makes for a very long day. Lately, we've had more long days than good days. But we finished third back in April to finally get a good finish there. Hopefully it's a sign of better things to come."
Is racing at Bristol the closest thing to Sprint car racing?
"The two places that stand out in my mind that's like Bristol are Salem (Ind.) and Winchester (Ind.). Both of those tracks were half-mile ovals with high banks. You ran at the top of those tracks versus the bottom, which is where we run at Bristol. The racing was so fast it was a hold-your-breathe-type situation. The types of cars that we were running at the speeds we were running - it was faster than what a stock car runs at Bristol. Running those two places is probably the closest thing you can do to get yourself ready for Bristol."
The Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 are crown jewel races, but winning at Bristol is also pretty special. How so?
"It's awesome. The coolest thing about Bristol is that you have 160,000 fans that you can see all day long or all night long. I can remember races where I passed Jeff Gordon for the lead and I could see the people cheering. It's one of the coolest tracks I've ever been to in my life. The grandstands are right on top of you. I mean, when you get out of the car after practice or qualifying, you can see what the fans are eating and what they're drinking. You're that close. And as hard as it is to win a race there - because you've got to have a perfect day to do it - really makes you cherish a win there. The one win that I have there is one of the best wins of my career. Anybody who wins at Bristol appreciates it."