TONY STEWART School's Out, But Old School Is In ATLANTA (May 9, 2006) - The school year is coming to a close throughout the Southeast, but not at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The 55-year-old venue is all about old school. The 1.366-mile oval...
School's Out, But Old School Is In
ATLANTA (May 9, 2006) - The school year is coming to a close throughout the Southeast, but not at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The 55-year-old venue is all about old school.
The 1.366-mile oval has been hosting NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races since 1950 when Johnny Mantz drove a black Plymouth to victory in a 74-car field. The quirky, egg-shaped layout Mantz spent over six-and-a-half hours lapping has lived on, giving today's drivers the ultimate throwback track.
Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, is a throwback himself, drawing comparisons to the ultimate old school racer - A.J. Foyt.
When not racing in Nextel Cup, Stewart will steal away time to drive USAC Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown cars, along with dirt late models, winged sprint cars and pavement modifieds, or to keep things simple, anything with four tires that goes fast.
Extra-curricular racing is nothing new to Stewart. The Columbus, Ind., native was jumping from car to car and race to race even back in his Indy car years when a full-time ride in Nextel Cup was a dot on the horizon. 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 list of accomplishments made by the likes of Foyt and the competition of his day was never lost on Stewart. The venues where Foyt and others made history resonate with the two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion, and venerable Darlington 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.
Despite only moderate success at Darlington - seven top-10s in 13 career starts with a best finish of fourth (twice - spring 2000 and fall 2001) - Stewart likes Darlington. Its history, its roster of champions and its difficult nature makes a Darlington victory a cherished victory.
With 25 wins under his belt and one already this season at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway - another old school venue at 59 years of age - Stewart is primed to log that long-desired Darlington win. He'll get that chance come Saturday night with the Dodge Charger 500.
Why is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver's cap?
"A lot of it has to do with the history of the track. If you can say you won a race at Darlington - that's a feather in your cap. That's something to be proud of, knowing that you're in a group of drivers with names like Pearson and Petty - the pioneers of our sport who you hear stories about the races they ran there and the races they won there.
"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."
Is Darlington a frustrating track for you, in that you run well - top-10 - but not as well as you'd like?
"I could probably run backward and run about the same as I do going forward. That's how close I feel like I am to figuring out Darlington. We've run decent at Darlington. I mean, I've run in the top-five there before, but every time I think I have something figured out, I normally whack the wall and go, 'Oh boy, I really did figure it out, didn't I?' I don't know that I'll ever feel like I've got Darlington totally figured out.
"It's a driver's track. As a race team we've kind of struggled there. I don't really believe we've had a race there where I felt like we had the car to beat or that we were a top-three car. Typically, we're a 10th place car there. It's a place where we need to be better. It's one of those tracks where if you're not having a good day, it makes you miserable. But that's what makes Darlington fun if you do get around there well. It's hard to be good there, and the guys who are good - it's a fun day for them. Hopefully we can get ourselves in a position where we can get our balance a little better there and keep working toward being a top-five car instead of just a top-10 car.
"But at the same time, 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."
Does not having Rockingham (N.C.) on the schedule - a track with a similar surface to Darlington - make Darlington a tougher track to get a hold of, because instead of having two tracks with which to gauge yourself, you now only have one?
"The tracks were so different from one another that I think Darlington has always stood out on its own. That's what makes tracks like Darlington more special to go to and win at. It's not the typical cookie-cutter shaped track. It's nice to go somewhere and have a challenge once a year that's totally different from anything else that you do."
Why is Darlington considered a driver's track?
"It's a driver's track because you have to take care of your tires and you have to move around on the race track. You have to do things on the race track to help your car out because very rarely do you get a car that's absolutely perfect at Darlington."
What makes Darlington such a tough race track?
"The surface is just worn out, and it's been worn out for years. Plus, it's like racing down an alley. It's not a very wide race track. And the speeds that we run there makes racing very difficult. There's little room for error because of how close you run to the wall."
How do you feel about running 500 miles at Darlington under the lights?
"I can promise you, racing at night here in the spring feels a lot better than racing during the day in the summer. When I was inside the car I normally felt like I was a Thanksgiving turkey and I was looking on my body for that little red pill to stick out and tell me that it was time to take me out of the oven. Racing at night when it's cooler definitely feels better for the drivers. And you don't see as many people in the stands looking like cooked lobsters when they leave. I think we all benefit from racing under the lights."
Does aerodynamics play a role at Darlington?
"Aerodynamics plays a role everywhere we go nowadays. Martinsville might be the only track where aerodynamics doesn't really play a role anymore. So even at a place like Darlington, you've got to make sure you keep the fenders straight because you need every bit of downforce you can get."
How does the current generation of Goodyear tire hold up at Darlington?
"Let me put it this way, if you're pitted in turn four, by the time you get to turn one your tires are about as good as they'd be with five laps on them at any other race track. 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's going to live. But it's the same for everybody, and that's what makes Darlington fun. You have to race the race track. It's very challenging."
Is Darlington the one track on the Nextel 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."