Tony Stewart Dude, Where's My Track? ATLANTA (Aug. 30, 2004) - For 54 years the Labor Day weekend meant racing at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. It was NASCAR's first superspeedway and its Southern 500 became a crown jewel event, mentioned in the...
Dude, Where's My Track?
ATLANTA (Aug. 30, 2004) - For 54 years the Labor Day weekend meant racing at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. It was NASCAR's first superspeedway and its Southern 500 became a crown jewel event, mentioned in the same breath as the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600. Darlington still hosts the Southern 500, but for the first time in history this year's race will be held Nov. 14 instead of on its traditional Sunday slot before the Labor Day holiday.
Labor Day weekend will now be spent in sunny, southern California at the 2-mile California Speedway in Fontana. Upon hearing of the date change, which was made last June, NASCAR legend and five-time Darlington race winner Cale Yarborough quipped, "I guess we'll just have to move Labor Day to November."
The change in Labor Day venues is a microcosm of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, for change is what 2004 will best be remembered for. Headlining the changes - which included a new series sponsor and a new fuel supplier - is a revised point system, where after round 26 on the 36-race schedule, those in the top-10 in points will be eligible to compete for the Nextel Cup championship during the final 10 races of the season. Following the Richmond (Va.) race on Sept. 11, the leader will get 5,050 points, with a five-point breakdown for each subsequent position through the remainder of top-10. It's essentially a brand new season, and for NASCAR, a brave new world.
Sunday's Pop Secret 500 at California is the second to last race before the cutoff to make the Chase for the Championship. And while Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, is locked into the top-10 thanks to his solid fourth-place point standing, many others are not.
As the story lines play out pitting NASCAR's past (Darlington) versus NASCAR's future (California), the headliner will be those gunning for the Chase. And with Fontana being just an hour outside of Hollywood, it's enough to make any waiter with a screenplay in development consider drafting one more tale, perhaps titled, "Dude, Where's My Track?"
What are your thoughts about racing at California during the Labor Day weekend instead of racing at Darlington?
"My answer is pretty simple on this one. I don't make the race schedule, I just go wherever the race is on that weekend. We still have 36 point races. Wherever we're at on any given race weekend - what matters to me is that we do everything we can do to win the race and get as many points as possible. NASCAR has obviously done a great job of growing this sport, and if a second race at California is a way to continue that growth, then who's to argue?"
Will the Southern 500 continue to carry the same kind of stature it has for the past 54 years despite not being held during the Labor Day weekend?
"It's not like the race has gone away. It's still there. It's still a tough track and it's still 500 miles. Just because it's in November doesn't make it any less of a race. It's still a race I want to win. I feel like the history is still there, it's just on a different date."
With the Chase for the Championship almost upon us, how will you approach it?
"I'll tell you the same thing we told everybody from day one. We take each race one at a time. We just try to get the most amount of points and the best finish we can get each week. If you win races, the points take care of itself. You just go out and take it one week at a time. You don't worry about what's going to happen the next week. You don't worry about what happened the week before. You do the best you can. When you leave you look at the point sheet. You know where you're at. You can't really plan ahead. As race car drivers and as race teams, our job is to go out and do the best we can each week. With that attitude in mind, that's how we've done what we've done in the Cup series. We've stayed in the top-seven for five consecutive years."
What do you think about the Chase opening up the championship to anyone in the top-10, with the days of 200- to 300-point leads being only a memory?
"For so many years the Cup series was about winning the title based upon what guy had the most points at the end of the year because he was the most consistent. The Chase for the Championship is just a change in time. I'm not sure it really matters what I feel about it. It is what it is. I think it can be a positive thing for our sport, but we'll just sit back and see what happens. I'm not sure if any of us like or dislike it, but we can't do anything about it. So, we'll ride it out and see how it works out."
Do you think some other teams and drivers who aren't solidly in the top-10, or just on the cusp of making the top-10, will change their approach at California and Richmond?
"If you are solidly in the top-10, it will be business as usual. But if you're 11th in points and you're within 50 points of the guy in 10th and it's down to the last two races, you're going to race just like you are racing for the championship. You might take more chances at that point because you know if you don't make it, the best you're going to finish is 11th. I can see where guys who are on the bubble might race a little bit different in the last couple of races if it looks like they may not make the top-10."
Does the new point system favor someone like you, as you've traditionally had a slow start to the season but have come on incredibly strong at the end?
"Not necessarily. If you look at our season last year, we weren't even in the top-10 in points after Richmond, but we still managed to finish the year in seventh. Getting off to a slow start can get you into a deficit that 26 races won't cure. You might just need all 36 races to get into the top-10 in points. That was the case for us last year."
Fontana looks like a lot of the other 1.5-mile to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that the Nextel Cup Series visits. Is it?
"California is a lot like Michigan. I like to call it Michigan West. I'm not sure that it has the amount of banking that Michigan has, but it is a flatter track than Michigan. The way you approach the weekend is pretty much the same as far as setups on The Home Depot Chevrolet go. You just don't have the banking to help you like you do at Michigan."
What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at California?
"It's probably about 50/50. You need to have an aerodynamic car, but you've got to have the horsepower to pull it, too. You can't have one and not the other and expect to go to California and win the race."
California is a track where a driver can search for different grooves, as opposed to some other tracks on the circuit where there is really only one true groove. As a driver, do you appreciate that more?
"It's nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you're not relying so much on the car. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day."
At what point do you start to move around on the race track to find a better handle for your race car?
"As soon as you feel like you're not where you need to be. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the race track and find a place that helps balance your race car. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out."
Why is it that races at D-shaped ovals seem to be won in fairly dominating fashion?
"If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he'll tend to run away. That's just the characteristic of that kind of track. It's fast, it's flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he's off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it'll help them in the long run. You end up racing the race track instead of each other."
Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at California. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?
"I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it's fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don't have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think California is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."