TONY STEWART Darlington's Extreme Makeover ATLANTA (May 7, 2008) -- Back in 2005, one of Darlington (S.C.) Raceway's two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series dates was moved westward to the two-mile oval in Fontana, Calif. For die-hard NASCAR fans, it...
Darlington's Extreme Makeover
ATLANTA (May 7, 2008) -- Back in 2005, one of Darlington (S.C.) Raceway's two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series dates was moved westward to the two-mile oval in Fontana, Calif. For die-hard NASCAR fans, it was hard to believe that an event in racing's heartland -- on NASCAR's first and oldest superspeedway no less -- could be jettisoned to a land where David Hasselhoff is better known for his driving prowess than David Pearson.
Darlington Raceway was being forsaken for something bigger and better, and when its lone remaining date was placed on Saturday night of the hallowed Mother's Day weekend, obituaries for the 1.366-mile oval were already being drafted.
But a funny thing happened. Lights were installed, and instead of roasting in late-summer mugginess, fans were treated to a crisp and comfortable night race in early May. And with the race on Saturday, Mom still had her day in the spotlight. Since 2005, the night race at Darlington has been a sell-out.
While Darlington is steeped in tradition, history had shown the track's leaders that holding too tight a grip on that history could make the venerable, egg-shaped oval obsolete.
Late last August, Darlington underwent an extreme makeover that involved far more than just a nip and a tuck. The Lady in Black, as Darlington is commonly referred to, got a new surface that eliminated its numerous bumps and sometimes problematic drainage issues thanks to 15,000 tons of new asphalt. Also added was a mammoth tunnel beneath turns three and four that can fit the modern-day transporters used by race teams. Freshly paved pit roads and newly installed concrete pit walls completed the track's transformation.
Beyond the cosmetic appeal, what does this all mean for those who must race around Darlington's confines? No one really knows for sure, except that the new asphalt will make for track record times. Drivers lucky enough to participate in a Goodyear tire test two months ago reported diving into the track's corners at over 200 mph.
For Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, that sounds fine to him. The old Darlington was never all that hospitable to Stewart, as his best finish is fourth -- logged just twice -- with only seven laps led in 15 career races.
As Saturday night's Dodge Challenger 500 is sure to pose a challenge to Stewart and the rest of his counterparts, it's at least a new challenge, and one that Stewart aims to make the most of.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
With fresh pavement essentially making Darlington a new race track, how will you approach the weekend?
"I can promise you one thing, I'll make more laps in my first run of the day than I would if I were in a Sprint car or a Midget practicing at a new race track. Normally when you go to a Sprint car or Midget track, you only get four or five laps of practice on the dirt and that's it. At Darlington, I'll use all of the practice time they'll give us. It's just a matter of going out and using the track time as if you were testing. You go out and sneak up on it, steadily improving yourself with each lap."
Because the new pavement has increased speeds, will aerodynamics play a bigger role at Darlington?
"Aerodynamics plays a role everywhere we go nowadays. Martinsville might be the only track where aerodynamics don'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."
Does going to a venue that's been significantly altered -- either with fresh pavement or with a new layout -- prove to be an advantage for the rookie drivers, as for once they have the same amount of seat time at that particular race track than anyone else on the circuit?
"It does. That's what I liked when we went to Homestead (Fla.) in '99. I felt like nobody had an advantage over me there. Nobody knows the secrets at a new race track unless they've tested, and even then they may not know the secrets. And for everybody that's going to Darlington, we all pretty much have the same amount of track time on the new layout. It's a whole new ballgame and it's totally up for grabs. It's really anybody's race."
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. We just need to find a little something that can help us get into that elite group."
Greg Zipadelli, crew chief of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
New pavement. Higher speeds. Is Darlington a whole new ballgame now?
"From what you hear, the tire's fairly hard, really fast and speeds are crazy. It's going to be completely different than what you've seen in the past. What I'm hearing is that you run 15 or 20 laps and your fastest lap is 20 laps in.
"With the old surface, if a caution came out, you pitted and put tires on regardless. Now you may see right sides only, you may see no tires, you might see just gas-and-gos, which is completely opposite of what we've seen in the past. That's only second-hand from what I hear as far as the speeds were and how far into the run you were before you actually ran your fastest lap. I know Goodyear went down there and tested twice and ran a bunch of stuff and I guess it was just really fast and fairly smooth in comparison to what it was. It'll be interesting to see.
"That place was tough before to really see a lot of side-by-side racing. You'd usually see some good racing at times, but now with the speeds they're running now, I don't know if that'll be the case. The good thing is, if everybody's patient, I think the race track will age fairly quick and get back to where it used to be, at least a little bit, where tires were more important. Darlington was one of those places that was unique from what we typically raced on, and that, to me, was why I liked going there. It wasn't your mile-and-a-half standard race track. The driving styles are completely different. The drivers had to have a little bit different mindset. Anytime you can mix it up a little bit from what we do every week is fun. It breaks up the norm."
How do you prepare for the unknowns that the new Darlington presents? You haven't had a chance to test there and you're just going off of what you've heard. How do you prepare for qualifying and for the race?
"You just look back at the history of everything you've done at different places. You try to build a setup for the car that's obviously adjustable, because we really don't have any data on what the race track is like. The good thing is that we do have a little extra time that we're going to get to practice. We'll be able to go down and run a little bit extra on Thursday, which is something that we don't normally have there. It'll kind of give everybody an opportunity to go out and run and work on their car, go home and think about it, and then come back Friday and practice, qualify and get ready for the race. That's pretty cool that they did that for us. Whenever you get that night to go home and think about things, usually you can make some better decisions."