TONY STEWART A Martinsville Elitist KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 20, 2010) - Tony Stewart is part of an elite group. Believe it or not, it's not because of his two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. Or 39 career Sprint Cup wins. Or 1997 ...
A Martinsville Elitist
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 20, 2010) - Tony Stewart is part of an elite group. Believe it or not, it's not because of his two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. Or 39 career Sprint Cup wins. Or 1997 IndyCar Series title. Or four USAC championships. No, it's because he's one of just four active drivers who have won at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway since 2003, a span of 15 races.
Stewart scored the second of his two career Sprint Cup wins at Martinsville on April 2, 2006. It was a rare sight, for since 2003, the only other active Sprint Cup drivers to visit Martinsville's victory lane have been Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. (Rusty Wallace, now retired and a NASCAR analyst for ESPN, scored his last Sprint Cup win at Martinsville on April 18, 2004.)
Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, turned Martinsville into Gordonville by sweeping the track's two Sprint Cup races in 2003 and again in 2005. That run helped burnish Gordon's legacy at the .526-mile oval, for he logged three previous Martinsville wins back in the late '90s.
Gordon's domination, however, gave way to that of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Johnson, now the four-time and reigning series champion, gave a glimpse of his future stranglehold on the paperclip-shaped track when he won on Oct. 24, 2004. Since then, Johnson has scored five more Martinsville wins, including three straight from October 2006 through October 2007, and then back-to-back triumphs in October 2008 and March 2009.
But just as Johnson usurped Gordon's dominance at Martinsville, another young hotshot appears to be doing the same, making sure Johnsonville is known only for sausage.
Virginia native Denny Hamlin is the current King of Martinsville. He broke Johnson's win streak when he took home one of Martinsville's prized grandfather clocks after winning the March 2008 Sprint Cup race. And much like Johnson has done in the past, Hamlin is poised to make it three straight Martinsville wins, as he won last year's October visit to the southern Virginia short track before returning this March for the track's spring race and winning it. A Hamlin victory in Sunday's Tums Fast Relief 500 would surprise no one.
That being said, Stewart knows what it's like to have the upper hand at Martinsville. In addition to his two wins, he has three poles and holds the track qualifying record of 19.306 seconds at 98.083 mph, set in October 2005. He also has eight top-fives, 13 top-10s and has led a total of 1,193 laps in 23 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville. Stewart's laps led tally ranks him third among active drivers, behind only Gordon (2,888) and Johnson (1,551).
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing is now a 12-year Sprint Cup veteran, and after logging 5,796 racing miles at Martinsville, Stewart knows a thing or two about the subtleties of the track's tight and fast layout.
Come Sunday, expect to see the usual suspects up front, and expect Stewart to be one of them.
If you doubt the man, however, don't doubt the car. The No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Stewart will use to cut 19-second laps around Martinsville is the same car that led 100 laps and was poised for victory five races ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. There, Stewart was a lap away from victory before his fuel cell ran dry, delivering a heartbreaking 24th-place finish.
Now that strong racecar is back in Stewart's capable hands, at a track where Stewart has been the lone ranger in defeating the trio of Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin. So, if you're looking for fast relief from the same old, same old, look to Stewart first before you look for your Tums.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How do you beat the Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team when they've been so good for so long?
"The variable that people don't take into account is that the technology changes every week, and it's not something that's huge and noticeable, but things constantly get better. You've got engineers and dynos and wind tunnels and simulation programs and all that stuff that changes week to week. So, it's not that simple. It's a lot more complex than that and as the sport evolves and setups change, you have to change with it, and that's something the No. 48 team has been really good at - being able to adapt.
"As good as the '48' team is, they've still had a lot of luck go their way, too. You have to be good, but you've got to have some luck on your side at the same time, because there's a lot more there that can go wrong than can go right."
When a guy like Johnson dominates, be it at a track like Martinsville or in the Chase for the Championship, he gets booed. Do you have a theory as to why he gets that kind of reaction from the fans, but is so respected by his competitors?
"It's because he doesn't do anything on the racetrack that makes them mad other than win. It's hard to not like Jimmie. He's personable. I get along with him great. Every time I won a race last year, he was one of the first people to send me a text message congratulating me, and I think that shows Jimmie's personality and character. He's just not one of those guys that goes out there and gets into guys and gets into trouble with guys on the racetrack that creates some of that animosity that the fans have sometimes."
You've had success at Martinsville and a period where you were always a threat to win. What's that like?
"You can have it, for sure. It's knowing that feel, it's finding that combination that works, and the next time you come back to that track you know what that feel is like and you know what you're looking for in practice for it to be good in the race. During the race, the track changes quite a bit, but you know when you kind of have that rhythm. You have the timing of what it was like, you just know what that feel is in the car that you're looking for, not necessarily to be good in Happy Hour as much as to be good for the race. When you've had a good weekend, the next time you go back it's just easier to try to go back and mimic that feel. That's why when guys hit on something they're normally good for a while until the package changes quite a bit, and then once that changes, you have to learn a different feel. Normally for a while you can have that, and different guys, if you look over the history, have kind of had runs at it. It seems like whether it's a three or four or five-race period, guys get that feel of it and know what that tire likes, what the chassis combination likes at that time, and they kind of have that and they know how to adapt to it."
What do you like about racing at Martinsville?
"It's still that old short track feel. That's what I like. We run a lot of 1.5-mile tracks during the year and it's the only place that races like this. We've got two half-mile tracks that we race on. This one's quite a bit different than Bristol, and that's what makes it fun. You can out-brake guys and you can run the outside if you get a shot. It's racing the way we all grew up racing."
Short tracks seem to suit you well. Would you like to see more short tracks added to the schedule?
"Well, they haven't built any new ones yet. Everybody that wants to build a mile-and-a-half track are the ones we look at and wonder why they're doing that, especially when Martinsville is as good a race as it is and Richmond and Bristol are as good as they are. You have three of the best tracks on the circuit, but everybody wants to build a mile-and-a-half track and put grandstands down the front of it and not put as many seats as you can around places like Martinsville, Richmond or Bristol. You can get just as many people around a smaller track and have more room to park them and everything else. I'm all for it. I'm sick of seeing guys build mile-and-a-half tri-ovals. Be creative, be unique. Build something that is your own. Don't copy somebody else's track."
In last year's spring race at Martinsville you finished third for what was the first top-five finish for Stewart-Haas Racing. In your first year as a driver/owner, how big was that race for you?
"It was a good feeling to get our first top-five at Martinsville. To go there that early in the year and get our first top-five - it was a big momentum boost for the whole organization. The same day that we got our first top-five here, Ryan (Newman, teammate) ended up eighth, but he charged from the back twice to do it. Even though he didn't get the limelight at the end of it, he probably had more of an impressive day with his run then we had with ours. I think we both left there with the feeling that we had two great race teams that were able to be competitive and be able to fight back and have good runs."
DARIAN GRUBB, Crew Chief of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala 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."