Charlotte: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Indiana Stewart and the Temple of Vrrooom! ATLANTA (May 20, 2008) -- No doubt the executives at Paramount Pictures feel that this Memorial Day weekend is an important one as they get ready to open the fourth installment of their ...

TONY STEWART
Indiana Stewart and the Temple of Vrrooom!

ATLANTA (May 20, 2008) -- No doubt the executives at Paramount Pictures feel that this Memorial Day weekend is an important one as they get ready to open the fourth installment of their Indiana Jones franchise. But for Indiana native Tony Stewart, Memorial Day weekend has always been important, for it provides a motorsports mosaic, from stock cars in Charlotte, N.C., to sports cars in Lime Rock, Conn., to the cornerstone event of the weekend -- the Indianapolis 500.

Indy is Stewart's Temple of Vrrooom. The recently turned 37-year-old grew up 45 minutes from the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road in Columbus. His first in-person look at the Indy 500 came when he was five, but by his eighth birthday, Stewart was no longer content to be a spectator.

His first go-kart race came in 1978 in Westport, Ind. His first go-kart win came in 1979 in Westport. And the first of his three go-kart championships came in 1980 at the Columbus Fairgrounds. They were all a prelude of things to come, as Stewart would go on to win four United States Auto Club (USAC) championships, an IRL IndyCar Series title, two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships and the final International Race of Champions crown.

Along that path, particularly when Stewart became a champion in USAC in 1994, won the USAC "Triple Crown" in 1995 and then advanced to Indy cars in 1996, the Hoosier seemed destined to become a mainstay at Indy. And he would, but in stock cars.

Like many other promising open-wheelers, Stewart made his racing home in NASCAR. He ran a five-race NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule in 1997 while simultaneously capturing the IndyCar Series championship. Twenty-two Nationwide Series races followed in 1998 in preparation for his rookie year in Sprint Cup in 1999.

With the exception of two "Double Duty" stints in 1999 and 2001 where Stewart competed in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same weekend, Stewart hasn't looked back.

But that doesn't mean that the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing has forgotten about Indy. Quite the contrary, for even though his living is made racing cars with fenders, the month of May means Indy, and the pull that Stewart felt toward 16th and Georgetown when he was five is still there at age 37.

With one eye on Indy and the now unified ranks of open-wheel racing, Stewart keeps another eye focused squarely on the stock car set in Charlotte.

That was never more evident than in last Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. To the untrained eye, it would appear that Stewart had an uneventful evening. He did, but in driving from last to fifth in the 24-car field, Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli found ways to make their car better during the course of the 100-lap, non-points race, while also observing the differing pit strategies of their counterparts.

It was a prelude to the longest race on the Sprint Cup schedule -- the Coca-Cola 600. The Sunday afternoon/evening affair is shaping up to be the kind of race in which Stewart and Zipadelli thrive. Traditionally strong on long runs, the 400-lap race could be tailor-made for the No. 20 team. There is the propensity for long, green flag runs in the Coca-Cola 600, and if the caution-free All-Star Race was any indication, long, green flag runs will again play a prominent role in this year's 600.

Built-in adjustability is key for one's race car to handle the transition from the hot and muggy afternoon sun to the slightly cooler and crisper nighttime conditions. The ability to adjust on the fly has been the hallmark of the No. 20 team through their 10 years, 32 wins and two championships together. And in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, they'll look to add to those impressive numbers.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

You had a solid fifth-place finish in last Saturday's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte, especially considering that you came from last in the 24-car field. What did you learn from the All-Star Race that you can apply to the Coca-Cola 600?

"We only had a hundred laps to work on it, but this week we have 400 laps to get it right. We learned what track position was all about. We watched what everybody was doing. Guys that experimented with no tires, two tires or four tires, we saw where that got them in 25 laps, and it's something we definitely paid attention to."

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."

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."

You came to NASCAR from the IRL IndyCar Series, and you still pay close attention to open-wheel racing during the month of May. That being said, how much better is the racing now that open-wheel racing is finally unified?

"It's better. Just the fact that there are more cars available is a better situation. Bump day was truly Bump Day again, and that's a good thing."

You were up at Indy earlier this month. While you were there, did you sense a little more excitement now that there is only one premiere open-wheel series?

"I think everybody's excited about it because people know that it's the best of the best now. It's not that it's not meant something to win Indy, but what reunification has done is make it better than it already was. Even last year with the teams that you had -- Andretti-Green, Ganassi, Penske -- the amount of cars that they had that were competitive and had a shot at winning the race was impressive. You still have those groups, but now you have new groups coming in with guys like Graham Rahal, and that adds that much more excitement. I feel like it has the potential to be one of the best Indy 500s in a long time."

Do you have a pick for this year's Indy 500 winner?

"You never can count anybody out from Ganassi Racing. You never can count anybody out from Penske Racing or Michael Andretti's teams. Those three organizations week in and week out are the leading contenders when it comes to oval racing in the IRL and I expect nothing less of them this year."

After finally winning the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, as well as winning your first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, you know what it's like to have a weight lifted off your shoulders to where you finally don't have to answer the question, "When are you going to win the championship/Brickyard 400?" Now that Danica Patrick no longer has to answer the question, "When are you going to win,?" can she enjoy Indy a little bit more, even though there's still pressure to win open-wheel's biggest race?

"Yeah, but it doesn't matter how many races you've won. It's still the Indianapolis 500. It's still the Holy Grail. You could've won 50 Indy car races, but if you haven't won at Indy, you're still absolutely the most nervous person in the world when you walk down Gasoline Alley to go out to the grid. I don't care how many race wins you have, it still makes you nervous, and rightfully so."

The goings-on at Indy happen while you're enduring what are arguably two of your busier weeks in Charlotte. How much are you able to pay attention to Indy?

"As much as I can. Any time I can turn the TV on, I'm watching. At Darlington, for example, I was watching pole day qualifying right up until after the driver's meeting and before I had to go out for driver introductions. I watch as much as I'm able to watch. The same thing goes with race day. On Sunday, I'm able to sleep in because of the late start time for us, but when I'm at the house I watch as much of it as I can before I have to leave for the track, and then once I'm at the track I watch the end of the race."

What was your first childhood memory of Indy?

"I came with my father. We were in some bus that had a luggage rack in the top of it. You had to get up at o-dark-30 to get on the bus to ride up to Indy for race day. They threw me up in the luggage rack. Somebody gave me a pillow and everybody started throwing their jackets on top of me to keep me warm. The ride home wasn't nearly as cool, because after a long day at the track, everybody but my dad and I were kind of rowdy. I was probably five years old. We sat in turns three and four. We were two rows up, right in the middle of the short chute. The hard thing was you could hardly see anything. The cars were so fast. They were a blur. But to see those cars under caution and smell the methanol fumes and everything, it was still pretty cool."

When you raced in USAC you had an eye pointed toward Indy, but only in regard to running an Indy car. Now drivers running in USAC still seem to have their sights set on Indy, but it's in regard to running a stock car. What caused this change?

"Jeff Gordon was probably the biggest influence. He had a lot of success in USAC -- won a lot of races. He wasn't just handed an opportunity in NASCAR. He earned his way down there. When he got the opportunity to go to NASCAR, he opened up a lot of opportunities for drivers like myself. And the TV package that USAC had at the time with the Thursday Night Thunder Series on ESPN, it brought guys from all over the country because of the recognition that could be earned from running USAC. We had guys coming from Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Illinois to participate in USAC races because of Jeff's success and the opportunity that he had to come to NASCAR. Indy cars weren't an option at the time because unless you brought a big-dollar sponsor, you weren't going to get a ride. When Jeff had his success down South, it boosted everybody's spirits and helped show everyone in USAC that it was a reality and that if they had the same kind of results that Jeff had on the track, then it could happen to them too."

You get asked this every year, but is the desire still there to get back to the Brickyard in an Indy car despite the fact it's probably not realistic because you're a full-time Sprint Cup driver?

"Logistics-wise, it's impossible to do it and be a Sprint Cup driver. With the start time being what it is, there's really no window to do what you need to do in Indy and then get to Charlotte and be in the car in time to start the race. Can it happen down the road after my Cup career, if and when it ends? You never know. I've learned to never say never."

Mark Cronquist, head engine builder for Joe Gibbs Racing:

All three Joe Gibbs Racing cars experienced engine trouble during the All-Star Race weekend -- the No. 20 team in practice and the Nos. 11 and 18 teams in the race. What happened?

"It was a new engine package for us. Basically, we put together different engine packages depending on what we're going to be doing in the race. We knew this one wasn't going to last. I personally thought it would last 350 miles, and it didn't. Some guys at my shop kept trying to tell me to put the other stuff in there and I kept saying, 'You come to the All-Star Race to win everything.' Even the engine guys look at this kind of race with a 'checkers or wreckers' kind of attitude, and the 'checkers or wreckers' kind of overruled me. We just tried too much."

Even though the engines didn't last, do you now have a better understanding as to how far you can push them while still making them reliable?

"We know what broke. Even if we want to try racing this package, we know we can fix that part. That's our weak link. We fix that and we go to 450 miles. And whatever breaks there, we fix that part and we go to 650 miles. Then, we're racing this package. We're not even backing off on it. That's the good thing. The bad thing is that we blew up two motors -- three actually when you count the one the No. 20 had in practice. That kind of sucks, and in hindsight we probably should've tested a little bit more at the shop to really make sure it would go the distance in the All-Star Race, but we now know that we had a rocker arm problem and that's something we can fix."

You say you should've tested more, but is that realistic considering how much around-the-clock work you and your staff have been doing to make the transition from Chevrolet to Toyota?

"That's why we had to take advantage of what the All-Star Race offered. We came in there with all the guns loaded, and it's just that ours went off a little bit early. I'm sure everyone in the All-Star Race had special motors. We gained a lot and we should've backed off just a little bit and maybe ran a little more conservative. Hindsight is always 20/20 and it's easy to say now that what we did was stupid, but we come to win races, not finish second."

Looking ahead to the Coca-Cola 600 -- the longest race on the Sprint Cup schedule -- is there a comfort level because of what you learned in the All-Star Race, or because of the additional 100 miles, is there still a bit of trepidation on your part?

"My stomach still gets really knotted up, but the good thing is, and a lot of people don't realize this, is that Darlington actually puts more cycles on the engine than Charlotte does. We ran a lot of practice at Darlington. We had an extra practice there with the new asphalt. And actually, cycle-wise at Darlington, it was the same as the Coca-Cola 600 was last year with all of its practice sessions. We got a good look at all of our stuff after Darlington and it all looked good. So, we're feeling pretty good about our chances going into the 600 at Charlotte."

- credit: jgr

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Michael Andretti , Graham Rahal , Danica Patrick
Teams Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing