Martinsville II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Auditioning for a Role on the 'Jimmie Johnson Show' KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 20, 2009) -- When news broke last weekend that Jimmie Johnson would be chronicled on HBO Sports' award-winning "24/7" television program, it seemed a bit ...

TONY STEWART
Auditioning for a Role on the 'Jimmie Johnson Show'

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 20, 2009) -- When news broke last weekend that Jimmie Johnson would be chronicled on HBO Sports' award-winning "24/7" television program, it seemed a bit redundant as competitors in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series have been dealing with the chronicles of Johnson and the No. 48 team 24/7 for three straight years. They've won the past three Sprint Cup championships, and with a series-high six wins along with a 90-point lead with just five races remaining, they seem poised to make it four straight championships.

So what is a Sprint Cup driver to do? Well, if you're Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS and 155 points down to Johnson, you audition for a supporting role on the "Jimmie Johnson Show." According to industry sources, Stewart appears to have the inside track. After all, he led the championship standings for 13 straight weeks before the points were reshuffled for the final, 10-race Chase for the Championship. He then notched his fourth win of 2009 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, site of the third Chase race.

But Johnson made it emphatically known that he is the star of the show by winning three of the five Chase races run thus far -- Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C. And with his lead status seemingly secure, casting has turned its attention to the show's supporting characters.

Auditions ramp up again this weekend at the studio set known as Martinsville (Va.) Speedway with the TUMS Fast Relief 500 to see who will play "Kramer" to Johnson's "Seinfeld."

Johnson will again command the spotlight, for he's won six times at Martinsville, including five of the last six Sprint Cup races held at the .526-mile oval. But Stewart could quickly blow through the door of Johnson's apartment and prove to be a Kramer-like scene stealer.

In addition to being a two-time Sprint Cup champion and the most recent champion not named Johnson, Stewart is also a two-time victor at Martinsville. And when he isn't winning at the venerable short track, he's running up front, having led a total of 1,193 laps and scoring 12 top-10 finishes in 21 career Sprint Cup starts.

Starting up front has helped Stewart run up front. Of his 10 career Sprint Cup poles, three have been notched at Martinsville, including his most recent pole, which came 143 races ago on Oct. 21, 2005.

The stats are good, but compared to Johnson's, they're understudy stats. Yet at the moment, every Sprint Cup driver is an understudy to Johnson.

While the championship appears to be Johnson's to lose, with fives races still to go, it can indeed be lost. Waiting in the wings for the moment when, if, there's a stumble will be Stewart. He's ready to provide the ultimate plot twist, and considering its fall sweeps, there's no better time than now.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

Do you have any sort of strategy for narrowing the point gap between yourself and Johnson?

"All we can do is just do our job. Even if we win the race for the last five weeks in a row, there is still no guarantee that we could close the gap. All we can do is worry about ourselves right now. It really takes the pressure off of us. All we can do is go for broke now."

Is Martinsville a make-or-break weekend to get back into championship contention?

"No, anything can happen to any of the teams. At this point, who knows? Until somebody comes up and says ok, mathematically you are out of it, until then, we have got a shot. That is all I can say about it. That is all we know. There is no blueprint that says, this is how you win or don't win a championship. So as long as mathematically you still have a chance, you're still in it. Until they tell you that you can't physically or mathematically catch up, then you are still in it. You still have a shot."

Everyone seems ready to give Johnson his fourth straight championship. What makes you feel like you still have a shot at winning your third championship?

"When we won the USAC Silver Crown Series championship in '95, 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."

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 racecar, 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 racecar 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 racecar. 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."

It's sometimes debated that because of Martinsville's rural location that it doesn't deserve two dates on the Sprint Cup schedule. As a racer and as a promoter -- you own Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio -- what do you think about that?

"Martinsville deserves two dates. All you've got to do is come watch a race at Martinsville to realize that. There are no bad finishes at Martinsville."

There was a time early in your career where 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 racetrack.

"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."

DARIAN GRUBB, Crew Chief of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

You grew up in the tiny town of Floyd, Va., about an hour northwest of Martinsville. How often did you go to Martinsville as you worked your way up the racing ladder?

"I actually never went to a Sprint Cup race until I started working in Cup. I went to a lot of Late Model races there from about 1991 on through 2000 working on cars that were racing, but that's really the only time I made it there. I've never sat in the stands there. I've always been in the garage working.

"I worked with Johnny Rumley, Satch Worley and Jeff Agnew was probably the biggest name driver I worked with for a long time. I worked for him for about 10 years. Lots of memorable moments from that. I think it was my first year at Martinsville and I was there with Satch Worley and we were in practice and his steering wheel came off. He didn't check it after he had gotten back in the car before going out on the track again. He absolutely destroyed that car and he came back to the pits with the steering wheel in his hands and said, 'Guess I should've put this on a little better' That was my introduction to Martinsville. There were like 160 Late Models that showed up, and of course we didn't make the show because we crashed."

Do you have a lot of family and friends who come out to Martinsville to see you and take in the race?

"I have a lot of friends around that area. My family is really close to Martinsville. Everybody is probably within an hour-and-a-half of that area. A lot of friends come down and see me, and even when they can't make the race, it sparks some memories and we'll get on the phone and call each other. It's cool to see everybody and catch up on old times."

What goes into making a car good at Martinsville, beyond making sure the steering wheel is on tight?

"It's all about the weight distribution and then comfort for the driver -- getting everything exactly the way the driver would like to have it. His preference for every little detail from entry to the center of the corner and exit and braking, the throttle application -- everything has to be just right, because Martinsville is all about rhythm. Rhythm is what's going to give you a chance for the pole. Making sure everything is right and making sure you can get every little piece out of the car. In order to go as fast as possible, you have to get the most out of everything that you can get. Every foot of the straightaway and all through the corners -- it's tenths of seconds here and there that really add up. The whole field is probably separated by two- to three-tenths of a second."

Qualifying up front at Martinsville is obviously important. But how do you balance using your practice time to focus on making two qualifying laps when you also have to prepare for a 500-lap race?

"Luckily, you don't have a whole lot of changes between qualifying and race setup. It's more a few things you do for tweaks of speed here and there. Everything else is still about driver comfort, because if he's comfortable in the racecar, he's going to be comfortable for qualifying. You just add a few more things to it to get a little more speed out of it. You make the car a little more aggressive, basically. It's a little more on edge in qualifying, but the driver can drive through that. When you get into race setup, it's hard to pass, so you have to make him even more comfortable inside the car to make sure he can run his line so that he doesn't get pushed out of the way very easily and doesn't get pressured by somebody behind him, because the only way you can really pass there is by doing a bump-and-run. You need to get somebody else off their rhythm to get around them."

Beyond a good starting spot, what does a good qualifying position give you at Martinsville?

"It's huge there. The pit road is very tight and it's very narrow. You have a lot of fighting going on to get into your box. The boxes are very short and you can't get the angles you need to get in the box, do your pit stop, and then get back out of the box very cleanly if someone's in front of you. It's tough all the way around there. The pit crews -- if you get too close to the wall you can't get the jack up because you can't move the handle as far down. And then the cars racing by you, they're going to be four feet away because the wall is that close. It's a hairy predicament all the way around. So, the better you can do in qualifying, the better pit selection you can get and help yourself out in some of those areas."

How stressful is it for you as a crew chief, as you're the one who has to call the driver into and out of the pit box?

"It's not that big of a deal for the driver. It's more for the crew guys because they have to get around the car and give it three-feet of room as he's coming into the box, but there might be someone else coming into the box in front of him that they have to watch for. I have to give them the heads up as to who's coming around them. There are a lot of things happening on pit road in a very short amount of time."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Dave Darland , Jack Hewitt , Johnny R , Jeff Agnew
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing