Tony Stewart New Blood From an Old School ATLANTA (Aug. 26, 2003) - In 1996, Tony Stewart ran five Indy Racing League events and nine NASCAR Busch Series races. For a guy who was used to racing every week, a 14-race schedule was just not...
New Blood From an Old School
ATLANTA (Aug. 26, 2003) - In 1996, Tony Stewart ran five Indy Racing League events and nine NASCAR Busch Series races. For a guy who was used to racing every week, a 14-race schedule was just not enough to satisfy his desire to compete. So whenever the opportunity arose, he was racing something, whether it was dirt late models, pavement modifieds, Midgets, Three-Quarter Midgets, Silver Crown cars or Sprint cars.
By just doing what he wanted to do, Stewart became a throwback to the times of A.J. Foyt, Bobby and Al Unser, Parnelli Jones and Bobby Allison, when those drivers - superstars in their own right - would fill up their schedules running whatever, wherever. Proving this point was an Indianapolis T-shirt vendor who printed up a shirt with Stewart's name and an Indy car and a Midget that read "New Blood From an Old School."
The history of the accomplishments made by Foyt, Parnelli, Unser and Allison was never lost on Stewart, who despite being a modern-day race car driver, is never far from his old school roots. The venues where those names and others made history also resonate with the reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion, and the venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is proof-positive of that.
"When I'm watching TV and I see an old race from Darlington, I'm able to see the history of Darlington and the Southern 500, along with all of the greats who have run there and won there and crashed out of the joint," said Stewart.
Since 1950 when Johnny Mantz took the first checkered flag Darlington ever offered, time has changed the name from Grand National to Winston Cup, and in 2004 it'll be known as Nextel Cup. The Southern 500 will continue to endure, but not on its traditional spot during the Labor Day weekend. In NASCAR's brave new world, the Southern 500 moves to Nov. 14, with the Labor Day date going to the anti-Darlington - the seven-year-old California Speedway in Fontana.
With Sunday's Southern 500 being the last on Labor Day weekend, there's added significance to a race that already bears the status of being one of NASCAR's crown jewels, and that's not lost on Stewart either.
With the realignment of the 2004 Winston Cup schedule, this is the last Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. The race isn't going away, it's just moving to a weekend in November. Is the Southern 500 a significant race because it's so old and its 500 miles at Darlington, or is it because it's been held over the Labor Day weekend?
"It's probably a bit of both. The people who are deep into the history of NASCAR obviously understand that Darlington was the original 500-mile race on the circuit. And the tradition of it being on Labor Day weekend has always been a big draw. But it's not like the Southern 500 is going away. It just has a new date. Still, when you think of the Southern 500 you think of Labor Day weekend. So there probably is some significance to the fact that the Labor Day weekend built up the Southern 500 as much as the race built up itself."
One of your old USAC T-shirts read "New Blood From an Old School." In terms of you racing at Darlington, is that a shirt that could be sold again?
"I think that shirt would be appropriate at Darlington. Some people aren't that deep into the history of the sport, but there are a lot of us who do appreciate the past. And I guess for me, being able to race at Darlington is a way of preserving the past."
Coming from an open-wheel background, was Darlington a place that even open-wheel guys had respect for simply because of the track's history?
"Absolutely. As much as we know about the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I think people underestimate how much we know about Darlington and the history of that track, and how hard it is to win races there. I guess that's why a win at Darlington is something that's really important to me."
Why is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver's cap?
"Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. You don't see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it's a track that's like winning at Bristol (Tenn.). It's the same type of feeling - knowing that you conquered something that's very hard to obtain."
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Is Darlington a difficult track to find the proper balance for your Home Depot Chevrolet?
"I'm not sure we've ever found the right balance at Darlington. For us, it's been very difficult. It's a track that's very demanding on tires, and it's very demanding on patience because it's so hard to pass. But if you do get your car relatively close, the race can be a lot of fun."
Is Darlington the one track on the Winston Cup circuit where you feel you have to work the hardest?
"It's one of the tracks where we seem to work the hardest. The way the tires fall off and as narrow as the track is - it's hard to pass. So, you've got to get your car driving well to be able to pass. You don't want to use up your tires too early in a run. It's definitely one of the harder tracks on the circuit, but there are a lot of hard tracks on our schedule."
Is Darlington a frustrating track for you, in that you run well - top-10 - but not as well as you'd like?
"No, because there are a lot of teams that aren't at the level that we are at Darlington. It's just one of those deals where the only way you're going to find a way to make yourself better is to go there and just do your homework. It takes a lot to get around that place consistently and fast all day. It's just a tough place to get around well, and there's a group of guys that get around there well every time we go there. It's like we're right on the verge of being one of those guys. We just need to find a little something that can help us get into that elite group."
You're coming up on your 10th career race at Darlington. With the age of the track, the various tire compounds Goodyear has brought there, the advancing technology of the cars, has the track changed much since you first raced there in March of 1999?
"I don't think the track has ever changed. It's still just as tough as it ever was. Goodyear can bring any tire they want there, but the surface will still tear it up. It's not because of a lack of effort on Goodyear's part, it's just that Darlington has a very abrasive surface that's worn out. And anytime you have a track that's worn out like Darlington is, it's virtually impossible to bring a tire that is going to live. It's just a tough race track, but that's what makes it a lot of fun too."
Are there different lines that you can run at Darlington?
"The way the tires fall off and the way that you have to change your driving style to compensate for what the tires lack at the end of a run, you'll end up running different lines. You've got to change your driving style each lap - change where you're lifting, how much you're braking, how much you're on the throttle. Some guys from the beginning of a run will race right up against the wall just because that's where their car feels good. It's not so much as the run goes on that you get closer to the wall, it's more dependent on how your car is handling. For instance, my Home Depot Chevrolet may start up there, but there might be another guy who starts his run at the bottom of the track."
If someone were to build a new race track, would a layout in the spirit of Darlington be a better decision than another 1.5-mile D-shaped oval?
"Anything's better than building another mile-and-a-half D-shaped oval at this point. We need more Richmonds. We need more Bristols and Martinsvilles and Darlingtons. We need variety in this series. We don't need to keep racing at a mile-and-a-half oval every week for 500 miles. We need to race somewhere different."