Charlotte: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Backward Attack for Coke 600 ATLANTA (May 23, 2006) - The Coca-Cola 600 begins on lap 400. No, that's not a typo. You read correctly. The 600-mile race at the 1.5-mile oval near Charlotte, N.C., is the longest race in the...

TONY STEWART
Backward Attack for Coke 600

ATLANTA (May 23, 2006) - The Coca-Cola 600 begins on lap 400. No, that's not a typo. You read correctly.

The 600-mile race at the 1.5-mile oval near Charlotte, N.C., is the longest race in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. It begins in the heat of the afternoon at 5:30 p.m. EDT and ends a little over four hours later in the relative cool of night.

Having a race car capable of winning means that its optimum handling characteristics are in effect for the race's last 100 miles. Having a race car that scorches the field in the first 100 miles but turns into an ill-handling beast as the sun sets is what all teams aim to avoid. Thus, they work backward, sacrificing strength early in the race for brawn when it matters most - at the checkered flag.

For Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team, they hoped their run in last Saturday night's NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge at Charlotte would serve as a test session for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. It did, until a crash 18 laps short of the finish cut their test session short.

That leaves roughly three-and-a-half hours of practice time this weekend for Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli to find the proper balance for their No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet. Working backward from lap 400, each minute will prove valuable as they tune their car's chassis to perform at night, in twilight and in the afternoon sun.

The Coca-Cola 600 seems to have three segments - daytime, twilight and nighttime. What strategy do you employ early in the race to make sure you're competitive for the end of the race?

"Early in the 600 you're running in conditions you're not going to finish the race in, obviously. You start at what's typically a real hot part of the day and the track is slippery without a whole lot of grip. You're basically just trying to stay on the lead lap, and with each pit stop, you're adjusting your car to keep up with the changing track conditions. You're making sure you keep some adjustability built into your setup, so that when the sun goes down and the track really starts changing, you're able to adjust your car accordingly."

Is there any strategy in the middle part of the race, where you've been racing a long time but the finish is still a long way off?

"From the start of the race, on each and every pit stop, you're working on your race car trying to make it the best that it can be for the end of the run. These teams are so good nowadays that every time they come in to work on their race car, they're going to make it better. You have to constantly communicate with your crew chief and your race team and tell them what you need the car to do that it's not doing, or what it is doing that you don't like. That's the biggest challenge."

Will NASCAR's mandate of smaller fuel cells (14 gallons) for this weekend's race change your team's pit strategy?

"Yeah, it's going to seem like the race will never end because even if you do get a green-flag run, it's going to be half as long or less than what it used to be when we were running with a 22-gallon tank. It's just one of those deals where the pit crews are going to be worn out. They're definitely going to earn their money."

How do you approach the last 100 miles of the Coca-Cola 600?

"We always work these races backward. You really don't pay attention to how many laps you've run. You pay attention to how many laps you have left. You know how many laps are in a segment and you know that when it comes to that last segment that you better have it right. And in the second to last segment, you better be working your way to the front so that you don't have to pass a lot of cars in that last green flag segment. Everything that we do pretty much works from the end of the race backward, and that's how we plan our strategy."

Do you drive more conservatively at the onset of the Coca-Cola 600 to save your equipment because it does have an extra 100 miles?

"No. The thing with the 600 is that when you start the race it's still daytime and it's still fairly warm. Throughout the race the temperature keeps going down and the track conditions keep changing. It's just a matter of making sure that you're staying up with the changing track conditions. Whether the track's tightened up or loosened up, you've just got to make sure that for each segment of the race you know what you need changed on the car to get yourself ready for the next segment."

Is the Coca-Cola 600 more stressful for you or the engine department?

"The motor guys. From the team's standpoint, we've got all day and night to work on the car. But for the motor guys, they really sweat it out, because once it's in there, it's in there. There's not much more they can do with it."

In last year's fall race at Charlotte, tires were an issue due to a rash of tire-related crashes. Now Goodyear has brought a much harder tire compound for this year's races at Charlotte. It supposedly increases durability while sacrificing grip. Is that good?

"Historically, we've never had any tire trouble. We did cut a tire last year, but typically, we don't blow tires. But if the new compound makes it safer for everybody, it's a better deal. Track position is probably going to be everything because I don't see guys being able to pass very easily. When you take mechanical grip away from the cars, you instantly make the aero grip more important. We're putting ourselves in a position where track position is going to be absolutely everything."

After racing with the new tire compound in last weekend's All-Star event at Charlotte, what did your car feel like on the race track?

"When the car loses grip, it loses grip all at once. It's not like a hot, slick track where you lose a little bit of grip and you can slide around and still keep control of the car. You'll have some grip, but when it loses grip, it loses a lot of grip because the tire is so hard. It just can't grip the track. So it's making things pretty difficult right now."

Is the tire too hard?

"Yeah, it's too hard for the car to feel comfortable to drive. But if (Goodyear) goes with a softer compound, then we wear the tires off and we're down to the cords and blowing tires. At least with this deal we're on the safe side. We know we've got a tire that none of us have to worry about running out of before the end of a run. This is the hardest tire I've ever run on in any kind of car. It's a tough situation for Goodyear too. They're trying to give us something that we can all be competitive on, but something that's safe too. The good thing is they're looking out for the safety of us first. It's up to us to make the best of what we've got now."

When Sunday morning rolls around, how much attention will you pay to the Indianapolis 500 before you have to head to Charlotte for a round of hospitality stops, a driver's meeting and then the longest race on the Nextel Cup schedule?

"I'll wake up in time to watch the start of it and I'll take a shower during the first commercial and watch as much of it as I can, just like I have the last couple of years. I enjoy the race and I enjoy watching the race. I think it's going to be a tighter field than ever. So I'll be excited to see it just like everyone else will."

You've always been a big supporter of the Indy Racing League (IRL). Why?

"Everybody likes NASCAR-style racing where guys can race wheel-to-wheel. When I started in the IRL I remember running at Texas with Buddy Lazier, and after the race was over he was yelling at me because we ran side-by-side for three laps. Now they're doing that for entire races at the mile-and-a-half tracks and the fans love it. It's just a good formula. It's brought NASCAR-style racing to open-wheel racing. There's all kinds of open-wheel drivers - whether they come out of midgets and sprint cars or road course backgrounds or whatever - that are coming together in the IRL. I never would've had my opportunity to race at Indy if it weren't for Tony George and the IRL. If it had still been under the old format with CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), there never would've been a car owner who called me and said, 'Hey, we want you to come up and test for us.' I never would've gotten that opportunity. But I think I proved that with the opportunity, I could do the job. Without the IRL, a lot of guys would never have been able to show what they can do."

Much is made about needing more American drivers in the Indianapolis 500 and in the Indy Racing League in order for open-wheel racing to gain broader, mainstream acceptance. Do you agree?

"I want to see the best drivers get rides. If they come out of USAC (United States Auto Club) or if they come out of other countries - I don't care where they come from. But I have thought that there have been some American drivers who had every bit as much talent or more talent than a lot of the guys who ran CART that were never going to get an opportunity to race. So that's why I've always been such a big supporter of the IRL. But I'm not one of those people who say, 'Hey, we have to have Americans in the series.' The Indianapolis 500 is about the fastest 33 Indy car drivers going for one prize. If they happen to come from America, that's great. But it's not fair to other drivers from around the world if they're one of the best but they don't have the chance to run Indy because of what nation they're from. I just think there are a lot of drivers from the United States and all over that truly have the talent to do it, so they deserve a shot."

Do you think the Indy 500 has lost a bit of its luster since the CART/IRL split?

"I don't know. I think the split has probably hurt more than anything. I think I'm probably more excited this month of May listening to the fact that the two sides are talking with each other, and hopefully after May is over with we'll be able to hear an announcement that maybe we'll be able to get these two sides back together again."

Do you believe reunification might actually happen?

"I don't know. I'm really on the outside looking in. I'm not really involved that close to it anymore. It's something I hope happens for sure, because I think it will be stronger and better getting both sides back together."

Who's your favorite to win this year's Indy 500?

"I think the competition this year is probably as tight as it's been for a long time. Obviously, the Ganassi team and the Penske team are the two teams to watch right now. For the most part, there are still quality cars. If you look at the practice speeds, and for the limited amount of track time they've had, it's pretty competitive so far. I still think it will be a good race in all honesty."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Buddy Lazier , Tony George