Tony Stewart Martinsville Makeover ATLANTA (Oct. 19, 2004) - It's been a good run, but the track qualifying record NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart set at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway back in September of 2000 is about to fall.
ATLANTA (Oct. 19, 2004) - It's been a good run, but the track qualifying record NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart set at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway back in September of 2000 is about to fall. Stewart's fast lap of 19.855 seconds at 95.371 mph around the .526-mile oval has withstood seven challenges from his Nextel Cup brethren, but thanks to a complete resurfacing of the paperclip-shaped layout, that mark will be obliterated when the series rolls into Martinsville for this weekend's Subway 500.
In test sessions leading up to the fifth to last race of the season, drivers have been lapping the Martinsville bullring about a second quicker than they did when the series ran there back in April. The fresh asphalt laid down the track's 800-foot long straightaways and the newly poured concrete in the track's 12-degree banked corners has made the formerly rough race track glass smooth, which has translated into some serious speed. Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team know firsthand, as they were one of 11 teams to test at Martinsville on Oct. 5.
The #20 gang earmarked one of their nine NASCAR-allotted test sessions for a late season jaunt to Martinsville, knowing that the new surface would recast the 57-year-old track into what would essentially be a new venue. Early indications appear to have proven Stewart and Co. correct. And come this Friday when qualifying gets underway for the Subway 500, it'll be time to put that knowledge to the pavement.
You tested at Martinsville Oct. 5. The track has been totally repaved, with fresh asphalt on the straightaways and new concrete in the corners. How is it?
"It's a lot smoother. They extended the concrete off the corners. They didn't add any concrete to the entry of the corners, but they did put a lot more down on the exit. They've made some great improvements. It's really, really smooth. The curbs are a little more driver-friendly because there's a little more angle to them. It's not such an abrupt jump if you get up on them as it used to be. They did a great job with the track. They made it really, really nice."
With the added concrete off the corners, does it allow you more grip as you accelerate off the corner and down the straightaway?
"I think so. Everybody who tested there ran quicker than what we typically ran there. I expect to see the track record get broken because the track is so much faster, and the extra concrete off the corners has a lot do with that."
Is there any concern that Martinsville will be so fast that it won't allow for much passing - that it'll stay a one-groove race track?
"You never know. I'm somewhat fearful of that. But no one will truly know until we all get there and start running on it."
It seems as though Talladega (Ala.) and Martinsville are the two tracks that are most often mentioned as places that could really affect the point standings, because the two tracks tend to produce so many variables that are out of a team's control. Do you agree with that?
"I don't think racing at Martinsville is that bad when it comes to dealing with variables that are out of your control. You can get caught up in somebody else's wreck at Martinsville, but I don't think it's nearly as bad as the kind of wrecks you can get caught up in at Talladega. So, I don't think it's a fair comparison between Martinsville and Talladega."
Martinsville and Bristol (Tenn.) seem to have a lot in common. They're both short tracks, where good days seem to be great and bad days seem to be horrendous. Is that a fair assessment?
"They're the kind of tracks where if you have a good qualifying run and you have a great race car, then the race is a lot of fun. If you have a car in the race that's not driving well and you have a bad qualifying run and a bad pit selection and you end up fighting the car all day, then a place like Martinsville becomes a very tough track. But that's also one of the reasons why when you do win there it means so much. Plus, their grandfather clock is one of the coolest trophies around."
You used to hate racing at Martinsville, but now you seem to tolerate it. What prompted the change of heart?
"You learn how to protect the car. You learn how to not beat it up. You learn it's a lot more fun racing when you use a lot more patience. Patience seems to be the biggest variable that can hold you up at a place like Martinsville. Needless to say, after going there a couple of times, I've learned how to be patient - out of necessity, basically."
Brakes are incredibly important at Martinsville. How does a driver conserve his brakes for 500 laps?
"You try to stay off the brakes as much as possible. You always hear the crew chief talking about floating the car into the corner, and what they mean by that is instead of driving it really deep into the corner and using a lot of brake pressure, the theory is to lift a little earlier and use less brake pressure. You'll end up running virtually the same lap time as you would if you drove hard into the corner. But when you've got a 500-lap race at Martinsville and you've got to use the brakes hard twice a lap, that's 1,000 times during a race where you're asking that brake system to slow down a 3,400-pound race car. If you can be easy on those brakes for the first half of the race or first three-quarters of the race, then when you really need those brakes to battle for the win at the end - you've got 'em."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
How has the new pavement and the new concrete at Martinsville affected your setup for The Home Depot Chevrolet?
"The little characteristics and quirks that race track had that made it so hard to get around, the new pavement and concrete really got rid of most of them. They actually did too nice a job, if that makes sense. The way they did the curbs, the smooth surface, extending the concrete in the corners out further down the straightaway - it's a great race track. When we went there and tested we had fun because we ran well. We made some significant gains, which was the most encouraging thing to us. The stuff we raced there back in the spring wasn't very good, but after we left that test our car drove really well. But it seemed like everyone improved. There were 11 cars at that test, and we were all really close - right around a tenth of each other - even on long runs."
Did Martinsville's quirkiness play to the strengths of The Home Depot Racing Team?
"Running well at Martinsville is all about the attitude you have when you walk in the gate Friday morning. That will dictate whether you have a good weekend or a bad weekend. I really think it boils down to that. As soon as you get frustrated, you get behind. Martinsville is one of those places where you can't ask your driver to drive harder, because that's what usually gets you in trouble. Track position has always been a big deal, so qualifying well is important, not only in terms of where you'll start on the race track but for pit selection as well."
How will the faster speeds affect your preparation and strategy?
"You still go there and try to get the car to drive as good as you can and you try to get it to roll the center of the corner as fast as you can, without hurting your forward bite. It hasn't changed what we're doing or what our goals are, but it has changed how we go about reaching those goals. Any time they change the race track, you have to change the way you go about setting up your race car."
Have the faster speeds forced you to bolster the car's brakes?
"Honestly, our brakes have never been better. Our car was so good at the test that Tony didn't have to abuse the brakes. Ideally, the key is to have a car where the driver is able to get off the brakes really early and then just let it roll through the center of the corner. The problem comes when the car doesn't roll and it doesn't turn. The driver has to drive it in deeper, use more brakes, and then you end up with no brakes. When we left the test, our brake temperatures were the best they've ever been, and that's because we had a really good driving race car."
Will the added concrete off the corners put more strain on the rear end gears as drivers will be accelerating longer and harder?
"I don't think so. Before the repaving there was a ledge between where the concrete ended and the asphalt began. And when you hit that ledge you'd get a ton of rpm change, the car would snap loose for a moment, get traction and go on. Now you don't even know there's a bump there. Before you were just trying to get into the throttle before you hit that bump, and sometimes you'd have to lift before you got fully back in the gas. That was far more stressful on the rear end gear than the way it is now."
How much more driver-friendly is the new curbing?
"Now when you drive down into the corner you can actually hit the curb, because it's angled up and it doesn't upset the balance of your race car anywhere near the way it did before. It used to be if you were on the outside, you'd push the guy to the inside of you down onto that curb so that he'd have to check up and you could drive by him. That's not something that really exists anymore."
It seems as though Talladega and Martinsville are the two tracks that are most often mentioned as places that could really affect the point standings, because the two tracks tend to produce so many variables that are out of a team's control. Do you agree with that?
"Yes, because at Martinsville you can get tore up real easily and you can have a problem on pit road real easily. You can go to Martinsville and qualify well, get one of the two or three good pit stalls that are available, have a good enough car to run up front all day, but still be like the '24' car was back in the spring, and have a big hole in the nose because a big chunk of concrete came off the track and hit their car. That's why they went back and fixed the race track, but it is an example of something being out of your control that ruins your day. Martinsville is the type of place where if something can happen, then it will happen to somebody, somehow. Plus, tempers and things tend to get stirred up there and it's really easy to get caught up in someone else's mess. Hopefully, we'll stay fast and just get through it all to get us a good finish."