Martinsville II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART My Favorite Martinsville ATLANTA (Oct. 17, 2006) - A bass pond. That's what Tony Stewart wanted to see Martinsville (Va.) Speedway turned into after some less than stellar runs at the paperclip-shaped .526-mile oval. Fill it with...

TONY STEWART
My Favorite Martinsville

ATLANTA (Oct. 17, 2006) - A bass pond. That's what Tony Stewart wanted to see Martinsville (Va.) Speedway turned into after some less than stellar runs at the paperclip-shaped .526-mile oval. Fill it with water, because Stewart had his fill of crumpled race cars and short tempers within Martinsville's tight confines.

But then came a cure for those ill feelings - winning. Stewart won the 2000 fall race at Martinsville - from the pole, no less - and led three times for a stout 179 laps. Suddenly, Martinsville wasn't all that bad.

Stewart remained consistently strong at Martinsville between 2001 and 2004 despite not earning any more grandiose grandfather clocks - the unique trophy available only to Martinsville winners. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing secured two top-threes, four top-10s, led 185 laps and had only one finish out of the top-15.

Then came 2005, where Stewart really turned up the wick. En route to his second NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship, Stewart led 530 of the 1,000 laps available (53 percent) to earn the best average running position (3.784) of any Nextel Cup driver. But even with those gaudy numbers, Stewart didn't have a win.

A broken right front wheel less than 70 laps short of the finish in the spring race left Stewart 26th. And in the fall race, Stewart finished second to Jeff Gordon, who successfully gambled that track position was better than pitting for four fresh tires late in the race.

Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team put those disappointments behind them when they unloaded at Martinsville this spring. With a third-place qualifying effort, Stewart quickly headed to the front, leading five times for a race-high 288 laps - including the final 26 laps - to finally score a second Martinsville victory.

Six-and-a-half months later, Stewart returns to Martinsville hungry for another win as he makes his 280th career Nextel Cup start in Sunday's Subway 500.

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."

You once suggested that Martinsville be filled with water and turned into a bass pond. After leading 818 of the 1,500 laps available (54.5 percent) in the past three races at Martinsville and winning in your most recent trip to the track in April, are you glad it's still a race track?

"I'd like to see them do to Martinsville like what they used to do at Bristol - once a year put dirt on it and let us race on it as a dirt track, simply because it would be cool. I like it the way it is, trust me. The speedway has done such a good job of making improvements - giving us new garages, fresh asphalt and fresh concrete in the corners. They've really taken what was a very aged race track and made it modern and something that we're all excited about racing on. The racing here has been awesome since they did everything that they've done. As a fellow promoter (Stewart owns Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio), I'm excited to see things like this happen - when promoters do things to make the competition better."

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."

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."

Martinsville is a pretty physical race track - one that you've seemed to have mastered. But you're probably even better prepared for 500 laps at Martinsville this time around because you've hired a trainer and have been working with him for about a month. Talk about that.

"I just wanted to get in better shape. I'm sure there are 80-90 percent of the people who'd like to get in better shape. I just got to the point where I said, 'OK, I'm going to do this.' The hard part is, it's not like our schedule is sane by any means. It's not like we can start working out and get to a five-day-a-week schedule. We had to be a little more resourceful and think about it a little more and get creative with it. We researched everything and came up with this. He (the trainer) goes everywhere we go. He knows the schedule. He's still learning too, because he hasn't traveled nearly as much as we travel. There are days when he gets there and it's a scheduled workout day and he says, 'Man, I'm tired, so I know you've got to be dog-tired.' He understands how to tailor the workout so it works around our schedule."

How is the new workout regimen going?

"It's fun. Race drivers are competitive by nature, so everyday when I work out, probably the thing I use the most is the rowing machine. It's good for cardio, but at the same time, it works your back, your shoulders, your arms and your legs. The first day I went 6,000 meters, then it was 6,300 and then 6,500 and the other day I went 8,000 meters. It's just neat to push myself and see how far I can go. When I see myself progress that way, it's not so much counting pounds, because you can drive yourself nuts doing that everyday because you want to jump on the scale. Being able to go out everyday and do something better and go a little bit further and lift a little bit heavier weight than I was a day or two before, that's how I'll judge my progress."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the No. 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 real 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 year our brake temperatures were the best they've ever been. That's because our car drove really well."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing