Bristol: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART On a Wing and a Prayer ATLANTA (March 21, 2007) -- The phrase "On a wing and a prayer" means that one is in a desperate situation, where relying on hope is the only way to see through to the finish. Appropriate words for any NASCAR...

TONY STEWART
On a Wing and a Prayer

ATLANTA (March 21, 2007) -- The phrase "On a wing and a prayer" means that one is in a desperate situation, where relying on hope is the only way to see through to the finish. Appropriate words for any NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, but even more so in Sunday's Food City 500, where drivers will actually sport a wing on their race cars as they hope to see the finish.

The .533-mile Bristol bullring is known for beating and banging and the resulting hot tempers of it combatants. It's a throwback venue to the kind of short track racing where NASCAR built its popularity. But this weekend Bristol is home to a racing version of Back to the Future, as it's the debut of the Car of Tomorrow, the much ballyhooed next generation of Nextel Cup race car.

Beyond the fact that Tony Stewart's No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet is now an Impala instead of the soon-to-be-discontinued Monte Carlo, Stewart's new ride features a splitter on the front of his car that juts out several inches below the bumper, a taller greenhouse that allows for more room inside the cockpit, and the most noticeable difference, a rear spoiler that would make the rear wings of cars in the movie The Fast and the Furious seem mundane.

Stewart's car, and those of 42 other Nextel Cup drivers, will represent a rolling Futurama, as the Car of Tomorrow gets ready for 500 laps at Bristol on Sunday.

You've won a lot of races in a lot of different styles of race cars at a lot of different tracks. How much do you want to win the first Car of Tomorrow race?

"I want to win every race. Bristol's not a landmark race for me, by any means. I'm treating it just like any other race. It's the same cast of suspects and we're all out there trying to do the same thing. Any time you can win at Bristol, it's big. Bristol is one of those races every year that I'd like to win. I remember when I won the night race there. I've only won at Bristol once. It's just a huge feeling when you can accomplish a win there, let alone with the challenges we have with the Car of Tomorrow."

You've been on the record in that you're not a fan of the Car of Tomorrow. Will that affect your performance when you have to race it at Bristol?

"I've raced for 27 years and I've won championships in cars I didn't like, so I'm not too worried about having to try to trick myself into embracing something that I'm not very fond of so far. If we hit the combination, we can go out there a win a championship with it. If we hit the combination right, we could win 16 races with a new car like that. I don't think it's anything that's psychological. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's going to be all about. I think when we go to Bristol that it'll be interesting to see where everybody stacks up and see who's really done their homework so far this year."

Could the Car of Tomorrow be the "X" factor for who wins the championship this year?

"Absolutely. I think whoever can stumble on the combination and figure out the Car of Tomorrow first is probably the team that's the leading candidate to win the championship this year."

Why aren't you a fan of the Car of Tomorrow?

"It's hard enough just to run one type of car, and it's going to be extremely hard to have to shift your focus between two different brands of cars this year just trying to figure out the new car. It's not like we have the whole year just to dedicate to that car. This is an engineer's dream and a crew chief and driver's nightmare. It'll be interesting to see what happens."

You've proven to be very versatile, as you've won in every single racing series you've competed in with the exception of sports cars. Do you feel that gives you an advantage with the Car of Tomorrow?

"In this day and age, the technology is so much more important. It's getting like Indy car and Formula 1 racing. The technology and the engineers in the sport make it harder for the drivers to be the deciding factor. In this day and age, it's a 3,400-pound car and it's either right or it's wrong. If it's not right, it's hard to carry a 3,400-pound race car and make it do what it doesn't want to do. In Sprint cars and Midgets, because they're lighter, it's easier to throw them around and you can kind of make them do what you want. But in this day and age with NASCAR being as technical as it is and as advanced as it is technology-wise, it's going to be hard for the drivers to make the difference."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing:

How different is the Car of Tomorrow from the previous generation of race car you've brought to Bristol?

"It's just so different. The aero packages, the suspensions, the wheel travels are so much different, so much less than what we've had in the past. It's definitely a learning curve. It's definitely going back to things that were years ago as far as wheel travels and things. I'm still trying to figure it out. It's hard to explain. It's a different thought process than what we've been doing."

In terms of working with Tony Stewart and his response to driving the car, does the Car of Tomorrow have a different overall feel to it, or is it still, from his perspective, a race car with a steering wheel, seat, engine and four tires?

"He says it feels heavier. It feels like it's got more body movement, which it should just because the center of gravity's up because the roll center is so much higher. It doesn't seem like it has the grip and the downforce he's used to, and that's at race tracks that are pretty slow, so it's definitely different."

For someone who prides themselves on preparation and knowing as much as you possibly can before heading to a race venue, is dealing with the Car of Tomorrow frustrating because you have so many unknown variables?

"Yes. There are issues and worries about parts and parts failures because the loads are so much different. The current cars are so much different than what we're going back there to race with. There are a lot of things that we're unsure about. Pit stops are different. Getting in and out of the pit box is different. The back of the car is longer. It's harder for the tire changers to get around, and we have to worry about the (air) hose getting caught under the splitter. There are just so many things. There are so many details that until you just go through some of them and have some problems, they're almost impossible to see or fix."

Has the pit crew practiced doing pit stops on the Car of Tomorrow?

"Yes. We've been practicing all week with it. Still, it's a little different. You can't get the wedge wrenches in like you used to, because with the trunk being longer, the fuel man and the catch can man can't do it. The rear tire carrier has to do it, which slows down the pit stop just a little bit. There are a lot of little things that all of the teams are working through right now."

Do bigger teams have an advantage because of your technical partners?

"I think the advantage we have with the multi-car teams is that we've got teammates to lean on. If you go different directions, you know you can collect data quicker. If one guy is good or better, you can look at what he's doing to get yourself some baselines."

With the Car of Tomorrow, are there new things that you have to look out for when heading to Bristol?

"It's everything. It's all unknown. We've never run a car 500 laps. We've tested here and there. We've never gone out and banged wheels. We've never gone out and ripped the splitter off and seen how bad it drives and how hard it is to fix it during race conditions. That's all something that we're going to have to go through and figure out as time goes by."

Are Bristol and Martinsville (Va.) not as important in terms of Car of Tomorrow races? Will it be more important in terms of knowing what kind of package you have when you run the car at Phoenix and Richmond (Va.), where aero does play a little bit more of a role?

"I think that will be a lot bigger difference as far as how the cars are going to respond in traffic, but Bristol and Martinsville are two important races, because at the end of the year, one's in the Chase and the other one's right before you get into the Chase. To run well at both of those and have a little bit of momentum or confidence knowing that you're going back later in the year is a good thing. And a lot of things will change between now and then, and that car will progress quite a bit from there, but just having a good starting point is important. Where we're at right now, we just need to go and get some good solid races."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart