Martinsville II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Something Wicked This Way Comes ATLANTA (Oct. 14, 2008) -- Despite Tony Stewart's 228-point deficit to Jimmie Johnson's lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship point standings, Johnson and the five other drivers ahead...

TONY STEWART
Something Wicked This Way Comes

ATLANTA (Oct. 14, 2008) -- Despite Tony Stewart's 228-point deficit to Jimmie Johnson's lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship point standings, Johnson and the five other drivers ahead of Stewart in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup may feel like the second witch in Shakespeare's Macbeth, for they are well aware of Stewart's wicked prowess at the five venues remaining on the Sprint Cup schedule.

At Martinsville (Va.), Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead (Fla.), Stewart has scored eight of his 33 career victories, and six of those wins have come in either October or November.

Martinsville is next up for Stewart and Co. with Sunday's Tums QuickPak 500, and the tight and fast .526-mile paperclip has proven to be a strong track for the two-time series champions.

Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli, the longest-tenured driver/crew chief relationship in Sprint Cup, have scored two wins at Martinsville and racked up three poles and 11 top-10s while leading 1,193 laps. In fact, in their first visit to Martinsville back in 1999, the rookie tandem won the pole in just their eighth start together.

In more recent years, the Zipadelli-wrenched and Stewart-driven No. 20 Home Depot machine has been the most dominant car at Martinsville. Using NASCAR's loop data analysis, which measures the past seven races at Martinsville, Stewart leads three statistical categories -- average running position, fastest driver on restarts and the number of laps spent in the top-15 -- and is among the top-three in a total of 10 categories.

The one list Stewart isn't yet atop of is the championship point standings. But with a win at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway two weeks ago and a solid 11th-place finish last Saturday night at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Stewart has risen from 11th in points to seventh, 228 markers arrears Johnson.

But as Stewart showed in 2006 when he won three Chase races in a six-race span -- including back-to-back triumphs at Atlanta and Texas -- he can indeed find an extra gear and score wins and points in a hurry.

With his impressive run at Talladega and respectable outing at Charlotte, Martinsville could very well catapult Stewart into championship contention with only four races remaining. And Johnson, along with the other Chase contenders, knows that something wicked this way comes via Stewart and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

You're seventh in points, 228 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson. Can you still win this championship and collect your third career Sprint Cup title?

"My standpoint has always been, until they say that you're mathematically out of it, you always have a shot. We won the USAC Silver Crown Series championship in '95, and we were the third driver of three that had a shot, mathematically, to win it. There were two drivers, Jack Hewitt and Dave Darland, that were neck-and-neck in the point standings, and we were kind of the third wheel. We were only included in the group media sessions because we were mathematically in the hunt. Both of those drivers ended up having problems in the race, and we won the point championship by two points. You realize when you use that experience, knowing that as long as you're mathematically in the hunt, you still have a shot. But I think for us as a team and for me personally, days like we had at Talladega are what's going to be so special this year. If we have a chance to win the championship at the end, trust me, we're all for that and we would love nothing more than that. But I think right now where we're at and how many points we need to make up, I think it lets us have a go-for-broke attitude and just go out and try to do what we did at Talladega and win races. I've always said, if you win races, the points will take care of itself. We could still, by theory, win the next five races in a row and still not win the point championship. For us it's about going out and doing what we can do, and the other 11 drivers are going to dictate their fates, too."

Talladega and Martinsville are the two tracks that are most often mentioned as places that can 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."

Survival is a term often used to describe racing at Martinsville. How do you survive at Martinsville?

"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."

Short track racing has been known for beating and banging, where contact between two cars usually results in at least one car getting spun out. But has the current generation race car, with its common nose and rear bumpers, changed that dynamic?

"It has. With these cars you don't have the kinds of accidents where guys get turned around because the bumpers on all these cars match up so well. If you get in a situation where a guy checks up in front of you and you run into him by accident and the guy behind you hits you, you're not going to spin each other out. That's made short track racing fun again. You're not worried about having to explain to somebody that whatever contact you had was an accident. And short tracks aren't cookie-cutter. They're all one-of-a-kind and they all have their own personality. Martinsville fits that bill, and it also has a cool trophy that's a one-of-a-kind."

No matter what kind of race car you're driving, 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."

There was a time early in your career that you weren't that fond of Martinsville. What changed?

"You're right. I can remember saying that we ought to fill it up with water and have the Bassmasters Classic there, or demolish the whole infield and pave it and make it a mini mall. But since then, Clay Campbell (track president) has done a lot of work at Martinsville and made huge improvements to make it what it is now. It's a fun, racy race track.

"Back in the day, if you couldn't stay on the bottom, you were in big trouble. If you got moved to the outside, you were getting freight-trained. That wasn't fun. But now, you can pass on the outside, you can race on the outside, and sometimes, the groove where you want to be is on the outside depending on how your car is driving.

"Clay took the time and the effort to make a whole new garage setup, where everyone has a really nice garage stall. They're some of the nicest garage stalls on the circuit. To do the things that they've done, the days of turning Martinsville into a mini mall are long gone. Clay is one of the more proactive promoters in the series, and he's tried really hard to make things better."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Dave Darland , Jack Hewitt
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing