TONY STEWART Martinsville Rematch ATLANTA (Oct. 17, 2005) - Tony Stewart led four times for a race-high 247 laps in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' spring visit to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, but a broken right front wheel on the 431st circuit...
ATLANTA (Oct. 17, 2005) - Tony Stewart led four times for a race-high 247 laps in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' spring visit to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, but a broken right front wheel on the 431st circuit of the 500-lap race spoiled his dominant run. After leading almost half of the 500-lap race around the .526-mile oval, Stewart had to settle for 26th in the final rundown, seven laps off the pace set by race winner Jeff Gordon.
"I can't even describe it right now," said a calm but extremely disappointed Stewart after the race. "I told the guys on the radio and again after I got out of the car - we have a lot to be proud of. And when the disappointment goes away, we're going to have a lot of good things to be happy about and look forward to. We're strong, we're a team and we're leaving here with our heads up high. I'm leaving here excited knowing how we ran today."
Seven months and 26 races later, Stewart's words ring prophetic. The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing returns to Martinsville leading the series point standings despite being numerically tied with Jimmie Johnson. Stewart's five wins this season trumps the four by Johnson, with Stewart earning the tiebreaker and the lead. Stewart also leads the series in top-fives (15), top-10s (21) and laps led (1,546). The strong run at Martinsville back in April was obviously no fluke, for the #20 team has proven itself, especially in the last 17 races, where Stewart has finished outside of the top-10 on only two occasions.
Despite its tight confines and rough-and-tumble ways, Stewart and Co. look to Martinsville as another venue where they can continue their front-running ways.
Is it comfortable to be atop the point standings, even though less than 150 points separate you from the 10th place driver?
"We've got five more races left, so I'm not even worrying about it. Obviously, it's a nice position to be in after five races, but until you can get a full race lead on somebody, nothing is comfortable at this point."
Is wrapping up the championship before the season finale at Homestead something that's on your mind?
"I don't care how it gets done. I don't care if we win it by one point as long as we get it done. That's the whole goal. Nobody will remember 10 or 20 years down the line how much anybody won it by. It matters whether you got it or not. That's why I say I really haven't been paying attention to it right now. I'm not letting that points sheet monopolize my week. I'm into figuring out what we need to do each week to be fast. At the end of the day I look at the points sheet for five minutes and that's the end of it for me."
Your consistency has been unmatched. What's it like knowing there are nine other drivers wishing you bad luck?
"It's a great spot to be in. I'll be honest, I don't think any of them are wishing us bad luck, but in the back of their mind if it happens, they're not going to be disappointed by it by any means. I doubt anybody shed any tears for us last week at Charlotte (N.C.) when we finished 25th after leading a bunch of laps and showing everybody that we had the best car. That's how competitive the Chase is right now. Hopefully we can keep doing what we've been doing and stay in the top-five. If we can go out and lead a lap each race and keep our performance where it's been the last four months, we've got a good shot at it."
Because you dominated the spring Martinsville race but had a broken wheel 70 laps from the finish hand you a 26th place finish, do you feel the track owes you anything?
"No race track ever owes you anything. Victories aren't given to you. You earn them. Martinsville doesn't owe me anything."
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. Is that true?
"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."
Last fall was your first race on the new racing surface at Martinsville. How different was it compared to the way it used to be?
"It was different. It was a lot smoother. But I think the racing was still the same. The paving job wasn't really a huge deal because it was mainly on the straightaways. The corners were still concrete. But overall, the track is just smoother. The curbing along the inside of the corner provides a little smoother transition. They just took what was there and made it a lot nicer. They did a really good job."
With the old track surface, the inside curbing was pretty abrupt. If you popped it with the right front tire, you risked altering your car's front end geometry. Is that still an issue with the new surface?
"It's nowhere near as bad as it used to be. If you hit the curb now it just kind of raises the car up and bounces you around a little bit. Before when you did it, typically the car would get up in the air and get really loose. It's definitely a more driver-friendly curb than it used to be."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
It seems as though Martinsville is one of the tracks most often mentioned as a place that really affects the point standings, because the track tends 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 have something totally out of your control ruin 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 get through it all and get a good finish."
Does 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'll get 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."
Brakes never seem to be an issue for your driver at Martinsville. How so?
"Honestly, our brakes have never been better. 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. Last spring, our brake temperatures were the best they've ever been. That's because our car drove really well."