Martinville II: Tony Stewart Preview

TONY STEWART Something Wicked This Way Comes ATLANTA (Oct. 17, 2007) -- When Jeff Gordon was asked if he thought Tony Stewart could still pressure him for this year's title, despite Stewart's near 200-point deficit to Gordon's lead in the ...

TONY STEWART
Something Wicked This Way Comes

ATLANTA (Oct. 17, 2007) -- When Jeff Gordon was asked if he thought Tony Stewart could still pressure him for this year's title, despite Stewart's near 200-point deficit to Gordon's lead in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship standings, Gordon responded with this:

"Oh, he's the most dangerous one out there as far as I'm concerned. He's far more than capable of doing it. Tony is so good at so many tracks. That team is one of the best out there. They don't even have to have us falter in my opinion, that they can make a comeback. I think the other guys outside of that are going to need the guys up front to have problems."

Gordon, a four-time Nextel Cup champion, may feel like the second witch in Shakespeare's Macbeth, for he is well aware of Stewart's wicked prowess at the five venues remaining on this year's Nextel Cup schedule.

At Martinsville (Va.), Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead (Fla.), Stewart has scored eight of his 32 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 Subway 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 Nextel Cup, have scored two wins at Martinsville and racked up three poles and 10 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 Chevrolet has been the most dominant car at Martinsville. Using NASCAR's loop data analysis, which measures the past five races at Martinsville, Stewart leads 12 statistical categories. From average running position and number of laps led to the number of fastest laps run and the number of laps spent in the top-15, it's Stewart's name at the top of the list.

The one list Stewart isn't yet atop of is the championship point standings. Despite top-10 runs in four of the first five races in the final, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, Stewart is fourth in points, 198 markers arrears Gordon.

But as Stewart showed last year 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.

Martinsville could very well serve as Stewart's springboard venue in 2007. And Gordon, along with the other Chase contenders, knows that something wicked this way comes via Stewart and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team.

Talladega (Ala.) 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."

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."

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."

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."

With the exception of Martin Truex Jr., every driver competing in the Chase has a teammate in the Chase. And all of the Chase drivers have at least one teammate outside the Chase. Some teams have asked their non-Chase drivers to let their teammates who are in the Chase pass them so that they can get a better finish, and the increased point tally that follows, without having to work as hard for it. What is your opinion of what are essentially team orders?

"I don't really like that aspect of it. But there is nothing you can do about it. It kind of is what it is. It goes back to really the only thing that I've disagreed on with the Chase. You've got 31 other guys that can dictate who wins the championship and who doesn't. We need to have our own point structure where it's first through 12th for us every week. We're not racing those other guys for points anyway, so why should they be dictating where we're at amongst each other? If you've got five guys in between two Chase guys, it shouldn't matter, especially if three of them are teammates of one guy who's in the Chase, and that guy lets three of them go to protect this guy's spot. That's the only thing I really don't like about our Chase rules."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

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 assessment?

"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 , Martin Truex Jr.